February 28, 2023
Ukraine Invasion Updates February 2023
This page collects the Critical Threats Project (CTP) and the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) updates on the invasion of Ukraine for February 2023. Full list of Ukraine invasion updates are available here.
February 28, 6:30pm ET
Russian authorities appear to be escalating their promotion of false flag information operations to distract from their lack of tangible battlefield gains and slow down the provision of Western tanks and other aid in advance of expected Ukrainian counter-offensives. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) accused the “US and its accomplices” on February 28 of planning to carry out a provocation in Ukraine using toxic chemicals.[i] The Russian MoD relatedly claimed on February 19 that Ukrainian officials are planning false-flag attacks at hazardous radiation facilities in Ukraine to accuse Russian forces of indiscriminately striking such sites.[ii] The apparent uptick in fallacious biochemical and nuclear false flag warnings accompanies a concerted Russian false flag information operation accusing Ukraine of preparing for an invasion of Russian-occupied Transnistria, Moldova.[iii] Russian President Vladimir Putin also notably re-introduced nuclear rhetoric into the Russian information space during his address to the Russian Federal Assembly on February 21 when he announced Russia’s intent to suspend participation in START.[iv] The recent resurgence of several standard Russian information operations in the form of false flag warnings and tired nuclear threats suggests that Russian officials are increasingly trying to mitigate the informational impacts of a continued lack of Russian battlefield successes as well as to slow down the provision of Western tanks and other equipment in advance of expected Ukrainian counter-offensives. ISW has previously reported on the correlation between Russian information operations and battlefield realities, particularly when Russian forces are failing to take significant ground in offensive operations in Ukraine.[v] The Russian MoD and top Russian officials will likely escalate their engagement with such information operations as the ongoing Russian offensive in Luhansk Oblast nears culmination and the opportunities for Ukrainian counter-offensives grow.
A top US defense official supported ISW’s continued assessment that Russia is extraordinarily unlikely to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl stated that the US does not assess that Russia will use nuclear weapons during a House Armed Service Committee hearing on American military support for Ukraine on February 28.[vi] ISW has assessed that Russian invocations of nuclear threats and nuclear doctrine are part of an information operation meant to discourage Ukraine and the West but do not represent any material Russian intent to employ nuclear weapons.[vii]
February 27, 8:15pm ET
Russian officials are promoting an information operation that falsely frames Russia’s war in Ukraine as existential to the continued existence of the Russian Federation. In an interview with TV channel Rossiya-1 on February 26, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that he does not know if "such an ethnic group as the Russian people can survive in the form in which it exists today" if the West succeeds in "destroying the Russian Federation and establishing control over its fragments." Putin accused the collective West of already having plans "set out on paper" for the destruction of the Russian Federation in its current form. Putin also remarked that Russia had to suspend its participation in the START treaty in order to ensure its strategic stability and security in the face of a concerted Western effort to use START to cripple Russia’s strategic prospects.
Putin began to set conditions for the perpetuation of this information operation in his speech to the Federal Assembly on February 21, where he blamed the collective West for using the war in Ukraine to threaten the existence of the Russian Federation. Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council Dmitry Medvedev invoked similarly existential sentiments in an essay entitled "Points of No Return" published on February 27 in which he accused the West of fueling the current situation in Ukraine since the fall of the Soviet Union and concluded that "the calm power of our great country and the authority of its partners are the key to preserving the future of our entire world." Both Putin‘s and Medvedev’s statements engage with an information operation that frames the war in Ukraine as existential to the continued survival of the post-Soviet Russian Federation, which is likely an attempt to present the war as having higher stakes for Russia and the West than it actually does. Putin likely hopes to set informational conditions to accuse Ukraine and the West of threatening the survival of the Russian Federation in response to Russian military failures and Western support for Ukrainian victories. No prominent Western official has called for the dissolution of the Russian Federation, and Western leaders have been very careful to articulate their aims as being to enable Ukraine to liberate all its territory at most. Putin’s language is designed to fuel support for the war in Russia and stoke fears in the West of the instability that would follow the collapse of Russia to deter Western support to Ukraine and persuade the West to coerce Kyiv into accepting Russian demands.
Russian officials continue to engage in information operations in an attempt to discourage the Western provision of military aid to Ukraine. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu stated during a TV interview with Rossiya-1 on February 26 that the types of weapons that the West decides to provide to Ukraine will determine how far Russian troops will need to "push the threat away" from Russian borders. Putin made a similar statement in his February 21 address to the Federal Assembly. These statements are likely meant to discourage the West from providing long-range systems to Ukraine by suggesting that the provision of such systems will protract the war by "forcing" Russia to take more Ukrainian territory to be "safe." ISW has previously reported on concerted Russian information operations to discourage Western military aid to Ukraine.
Ukrainian military officials continue to respond to Western concerns about Ukrainian capabilities to liberate Ukrainian people and land and suggest that Ukrainian forces are preparing for a spring counteroffensive in southern Ukraine. Ukrainian Deputy Head of the Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Vadim Skibitskyi stated on February 26 that Ukrainian forces will be ready for a counteroffensive in spring 2023 and that one Ukrainian strategic goal is to split the Russian frontline between Crimea and mainland Russia. Skibitskyi noted that the supply of Western military aid is one decisive factor in determining the timing of a Ukrainian counteroffensive. Western officials and news outlets have recently expressed a degree of doubt about Ukrainian forces’ ability to conduct a counteroffensive and the West’s ability to provide long-term military aid to Ukraine, as ISW has previously reported. ISW’s prior assessments of Russian military capabilities along the Zaporizhia Oblast front line suggest that there are opportunities for Ukraine to conduct a counter-offensive in that strategically vital region.
A reportedly captured Russian military manual suggests that Russian forces are implementing new assault tactics to compensate for current combat power limitations in response to continued offensive failures. A Ukrainian reserve officer posted a picture on February 26 reportedly of a captured Russian manual that details the tactics of a newly minted "assault detachment," which is a battalion-sized element that has been optimized for frontal assaults on fortified areas. The assault detachment formation reportedly fields six T-72 main battle tanks, 12 infantry fighting vehicles, and a collection of man-portable thermobaric rocket launchers, anti-tank guided missile systems, towed artillery, and self-propelled mortars. The assault detachment appears to be comprised of three assault companies and a tank section. Each assault company has a command element, two assault "platoons" (at far below normal platoon strength), a UAV team, an armored fighting vehicle (AFV) group, a fire support platoon and an artillery support platoon, a reserve section, and a medevac section. Each company fields one tank and four BMP/BMD-2 infantry fighting vehicles, with anti-tank launchers, heavy machine guns, and mortars. The Ukrainian reserve officer remarked that assault "platoons" of 12 to 15 people, divided into tactical groups of three people, are the formation’s primary maneuver elements. The assault detachment reportedly conducts assaults within less than a minute of the time when artillery fire begins on open fortified positions, with the platoon commander controlling mortar fire.
The manual suggests that Russian forces are trying to adapt maneuver forces into smaller and more agile military formations than were employed earlier in the war. The Ukrainian reserve officer noted that this new tactical formation suggests that Russian forces have replaced the defunct battalion tactical group (BTG) with these smaller and more agile maneuver formations. The manual suggests that Russian forces are using T-72 tanks for direct fire support from the rear rather than as integral parts of a combined arms team. The increased reliance on dismounted infantry and the relegation of tanks to fire support from the rear indicates that Russian military leadership is prioritizing protecting main battle tanks over protecting infantry, which is reflective of recent reports of massive equipment losses that Russian armor units sustained over the first year of the war. The manual indicates that the Russian military is resorting to employing a form of simplified combined arms warfare that has likely been pared down to compensate for the overall degradation of Russian manpower and equipment capacity and which is easier for inexperienced and untrained mobilized personnel slotted into such detachments to employ.
The tactics of the assault detachment additionally suggest that the Russian military may be attempting to institutionalize practices used to marginal tactical effect by the Wagner Group in Bakhmut. The Ukrainian reserve officer suggested that this new formation is likely partially influenced by Wagner Group operations around Bakhmut. ISW has previously reported on the fact that Wagner has largely relied on squad-sized frontal assaults, which have decreased the reliance on massed fires as Russian artillery and equipment stocks have dwindled. The Wagner Group’s highly attritional offensive on Bakhmut has failed to gain operationally significant ground, so the institutionalization of elements of Wagner’s tactics will likely further normalize attritional frontal assaults. Such tactics are likely to waste Russian combat power and not effectively counter conventional Ukrainian battalions and brigades. Assault detachments may be able to make tactical gains at cost due to their simplicity but will likely culminate rapidly due to their small size and attritional tactics. Russian forces are unlikely to make operationally significant breakthroughs rapidly with this formation.
US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director William Burns stated on February 25 that the CIA is confident that Chinese leadership is considering the provision of lethal equipment to Russia but has not made a final decision. In an interview with CBS News, Burns stated that the CIA has not seen evidence of Chinese shipments of lethal equipment to Russia. Burns also stated that the US government chose to make the CIA’s assessment public in order to deter China from sending lethal weapons to Russia.
- Russian officials are promoting an information operation that falsely frames Russia’s war in Ukraine as existential to the continued existence of the Russian Federation.
- Russian officials continue to conduct information operations in an attempt to discourage the Western provision of military aid to Ukraine.
- Ukrainian military officials continue to respond to Western concerns over Ukrainian capabilities and suggest that Ukrainian forces are preparing for a spring counteroffensive in southern Ukraine.
- A reportedly captured Russian military manual suggests that Russian forces are implementing new assault tactics to compensate for the current limitations on combat capability in light of continued offensive failures.
- The manual suggests that Russian forces are trying to adopt smaller and more agile combined arms formations than were employed earlier in the war.
- The tactics of the assault detachment additionally suggest that the Russian military may be attempting to institutionalize tactics used to marginal tactical effect by the Wagner Group in Bakhmut.
- US Central Intelligence Director William Burns stated on February 25 that the CIA is confident that Chinese leadership is considering the provision of lethal equipment to Russia but has not made a final decision or provided lethal aid to Russia.
- Ukrainian officials stated that Russian forces have been concentrating and escalating operations along the Luhansk Oblast front line.
- Russian forces continued to conduct ground attacks northwest of Svatove and near Kreminna.
- Russian forces continued to conduct ground attacks across the Donetsk Oblast front line, and Russian sources widely claimed that Wagner Group forces made territorial gains north of Bakhmut.
- Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces continue to focus on establishing defensive fortifications in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast and Crimea.
- Russian forces are continuing to expend their already limited stocks of precision munitions.
- Russian officials announced that all social support measures will enter into force in occupied territories on March 1.
February 26, 2023
Russia likely began to run out of combat-ready forces by late May 2022, forcing Russian President Vladimir Putin to decide between launching a volunteer recruitment campaign or ordering an unpopular involuntary reserve call-up. ISW observed several indicators that suggested that the Russian military command had begun to suffer significant manpower shortages in May 2022. Russian forces began withdrawing from their positions immediately around Kharkiv City in mid-May, and ISW assessed that Russian forces had abandoned their offensive on the Izyum-Slovyansk line in favor of concentrating forces for the seizure of Severodonetsk-Lysychansk. The inability of Russian forces to pursue offensives on both Severodonetsk-Lysychansk and Slovyansk simultaneously reflected serious limitations in Russian combat power. Russian veteran communities apparently came to the same conclusion and called on Putin and the Russian MoD to immediately declare partial mobilization while improving the mobilization call-up system for subsequent mobilization waves in May 2022. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) had likely advised Putin that he needed to declare mobilization as soon as possible to ensure that Russia had sufficient combat power to continue offensive operations past the capture of the Severodonetsk-Lysychansk line.
February 25, 7 pm ET
UK, French, and German officials are reportedly preparing a NATO-Ukraine pact that falls far short of the protections Ukraine would receive from NATO membership and appears to reflect a desire to press Ukraine to accept a negotiated settlement on unfavorable terms.[i] The Wall Street Journal reported that the exact provisions of the pact are undecided, but the officials indicated that the pact will provide advanced military equipment, arms, and ammunition to Ukraine, but not Article V protection or a commitment to station NATO forces in Ukraine—falling short of Ukraine’s aspirations for full NATO membership. The officials stated that the pact aims to provision Ukraine so that Ukrainian forces can conduct a counteroffensive that brings Russia to the negotiating table and deter any future Russian aggression. The Wall Street Journal noted that these officials expressed reservations about the West’s ability to sustain a prolonged war effort, the high casualty count that Ukraine would sustain in such a prolonged war, and Ukrainian forces’ ability to completely recapture long-occupied territories like Crimea, however. The Wall Street Journal contrasted these officials’ private reservations with US President Joe Biden’s public statements of support—which did not mention peace negotiations—and with Central and Eastern European leaders’ concerns that premature peace negotiations would encourage further Russian aggression. Russian President Vladimir Putin has given no indication that he is willing to compromise on his stated maximalist goals, which include Ukraine’s “neutrality” and demilitarization—as well as de facto regime change in Kyiv, as ISW has consistently reported.[ii]
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko plans to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, possibly to assist Russia and China in sanctions evasion amidst reports that China is seriously considering sending Russia lethal aid. Lukashenko announced plans to visit China from February 28 to March 2 and to meet with Xi Jinping likely to sign agreements on trade, investment, large-scale joint projects, and other matters.[iii] Lukashenko also plans to meet with top Chinese officials and the heads of Chinese corporations.[iv] Lukashenko’s announcement of his planned visit coincides with reporting from CNN and The Washington Post that senior US officials assess that China is seriously considering selling combat drones, personal weapons, and 122mm and 152mm artillery shells to Russia.[v] Russian and Chinese officials have also reportedly developed plans for the shipment of drones to Russia under falsified shipping documents to avoid international sanctions measures.[vi] China may seek to use agreements with Belarus to obfuscate violations of sanctions.
- UK, French, and German officials are reportedly preparing a NATO-Ukraine pact that falls far short of the protections Ukraine would receive from NATO membership and appears to reflect a desire to press Ukraine to accept a negotiated settlement on unfavorable terms.
- Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko plans to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, possibly to assist Russia and China in sanctions evasion amidst reports that China is seriously considering sending Russia lethal aid.
- US President Joe Biden rejected China’s 12-point peace plan as Russian sources continue to capitalize on the announcement of the plan to vilify the West and Ukraine.
- Lukashenko breathed new life into the Kremlin’s Transnistria information operation by falsely claiming that opening a Transnistrian front would be in the West’s interests.
- Russian authorities detained more than 50 people at anti-war demonstrations in 14 Russian cities on February 24.
- Wagner Group Financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and his supporters criticized Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu over his son-in-law Alexei Stolyarov’s alleged Instagram “likes” of anti-war posts.
- Russian forces continued to conduct ground attacks northwest of Svatove and near Kreminna.
- Russian forces made marginal territorial gains around Bakhmut and Avdiivka and continued to conduct ground attacks across the Donetsk Oblast front line.
- Russian forces continue to struggle to conduct effective combat operations on the Zaporizhia Oblast front line.
- Russian forces are continuing to suffer significant losses on the battlefield prompting some milbloggers to criticize the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) for failing to recognize the scale of the casualties.
- Russian authorities are exploiting Ukrainian children from Mariupol as propaganda to falsely portray Russia as the savior of occupied areas.
The Kremlin did not comment on the first anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, likely because Russia has failed to achieve any of its stated objectives and has not made significant territorial gains since July 2022. Russian President Vladimir Putin and his administration made no statements relating to the anniversary even though Putin has made numerous public appearances over the past three days. Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council Dmitry Medvedev made inflammatory claims that Russia will win the war and reiterated that it is vital for Russia to achieve its goals to "push back the borders that threaten [Russia] as far as possible, even if they are the borders of Poland." ISW has previously assessed that the Kremlin has been using Medvedev to sustain information campaigns targeting Western military support for Ukraine and to deflect attention from Russia's military failures. Medvedev's statements highlight the fact that the Kremlin is continuing to pursue its unrealistic maximalist goals even though it has no meaningful successes to offer the Russian people after a year of costly war in Ukraine.
Select Russian milbloggers commented on the Kremlin's silence on the first anniversary of the war. Russian former officer and an avid Kremlin critic Igor Girkin criticized Medvedev's statements as delusional and lamented the fact that no one remembers the severe losses Russian airborne troops suffered during the fight for Hostomel Airfield near Kyiv on February 24, 2022. Girkin claimed that he had long been forecasting that Russia had embarked upon a protracted and exhausting war. He noted that it is very difficult to defeat a state that receives external support using Russia's unmotivated forces, absent civil society, and strong brainwashing. A Kremlin-affiliated milblogger attempted to downplay Russia's military failures expressing thanks that the war revealed shortcomings but distress at the high price paid in Russian blood. The milblogger also amplified the Kremlin's false narrative that the war was necessary to stop supposed Ukrainian "aggression" in Donbas. The milblogger's statements closely mirror comments made by unnamed Kremlin-affiliated officials to Financial Times who noted that Putin will try to frame Russia's catastrophic military failures as a necessary learning experience that Russia will use to prepare for future supposed NATO aggression against Russia that Putin purportedly fears.
A Russian source capitalized on China's release of a 12-point peace plan to inaccurately portray China as supporting Russia's war in Ukraine. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a document on February 24 titled "China's Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis" that called for Ukraine and Russia to respect each other's sovereignty, cease hostilities, resume peace talks, reduce strategic risks, and cease unilateral sanctions. Advisor to the Luhansk People's Republic (LNR) head Rodion Miroshnik falsely asserted that China's peace plan insinuated that Ukraine and the West are the aggressors, supporting Russia's framing of the war. China's release of the vague peace plan is likely in support of an ongoing effort balance between supporting Russia and retaining access to European markets by portraying China as a disinterested third-party mediator. The Chinese peace plan is unlikely to be a serious blueprint for a negotiated settlement to the war in Ukraine.
US intelligence reportedly assesses that China is seriously considering sending weapons to Russia amidst continued pressure from Western sanctions regimes on Russia's defense industrial base (DIB). CNN reported on February 24 that sources familiar with the intelligence stated that Chinese officials have not made a final decision on the provision of lethal aid but are discussing the price and scope of the supply of attack drones and ammunition with Russian officials. Senior US officials reportedly assess that recent intelligence suggests that China is leaning toward providing the equipment to Russia, although based on a bilateral arms sales agreement and not as security assistance. German outlet Der Spiegel reported on February 23 that Russian officials are engaged in negotiations with Chinese drone manufacturer Xi'an Bingo Intelligent Aviation Technology for the mass production and delivery of 100 ZT-180 drones to Russian forces by April. Der Spiegel reported that the ZT-180 drone can carry a 35-50kg warhead, suggesting that these drones may be a dual-use technology that Russian forces are seeking to acquire for reconnaissance purposes and not just as loitering munitions or high-precision weapons systems. Russian and Chinese officials have reportedly developed plans for the shipment of the drones to Russia under falsified shipping documents labeling the equipment as replacement parts for civil aviation.
Russian officials are likely seeking support from Chinese defense manufacturers due to restrictions that international sanctions regimes have placed on Russia's defense industry. The United Kingdom (UK) government and the US Department of Treasury both announced new sanctions and export ban measures on February 24 specifically targeting industries, entities, and individuals supporting Russian military capabilities. The UK government stated that its new package of export bans aims to block the export of every item that Russia uses on the battlefield in Ukraine and that its new sanctions package would target senior executives of Russian state-owned nuclear power company Rosatom, executives of Russian defense firms, six entities involved in the repair of Russian military equipment, four Russian banks, and Russian elite figures. The US Department of Treasury stated that Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) imposed sanctions on 22 individuals and 83 entities, 30 of which are reportedly third-country entities and individuals that help Russia evade existing sanctions measures. Intensified Western sanctions regimes will likely continue to constrain Russia's ability to acquire the technology and materiel to maintain a defense industrial base necessary for supporting its war effort in Ukraine.
Western governments made a variety of statements on the provision of military aid to Ukraine on February 24. Polish President Andzej Duda reported that Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki delivered the first batch of Leopards to Ukraine as part of the international "tank coalition." Conversely, US Army Minister Christine Wormuth stated that it could take the United States more than a year to deliver M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine due to the production and modernization timeline associated with such tank variants. US National Security Advisory Jake Sullivan stated on February 24 that Russia has already lost its war in Ukraine, but that the provision of F-16 fighter jets, which the Ukrainian government has consistently asked the West for, "are not the key capability" that Ukraine currently needs. Sullivan remarked that the provision of F-16s is not a question of the short-term and instead a question of long-term defensive capabilities. As ISW has previously assessed, the West's material support for Ukraine, particularly the provision of main battle tanks and other critical systems, is essential to enable Ukraine to conduct successful mechanized counteroffensives to liberate Ukrainian people and territory. Continued Western support for Ukraine is crucial to enabling Ukraine to regain the initiative and reengage in successive counteroffensive operations in the near future.
The Kremlin escalated its information conditions-setting for a possible false-flag operation in Russian-occupied Transnistria, Moldova. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) made a second claim on February 23 that Ukrainian forces are intensifying preparations to invade Transnistria following its first such claim earlier in the day. The MoD emphasized that the claimed Ukrainian plan poses a significant threat to the Russian peacekeeping contingent in Transnistria. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed on February 24 that Russia will consider any action that threatens Transnistrian security as an attack against Russia. The Kremlin may instead aim to destabilize Moldova, however. Some Russian milbloggers amplified the Kremlin's rhetoric by claiming that the situation along the Ukrainian-Transnistrian border is becoming increasingly tense. Moldovan officials continued to deny Russian claims on February 24, characterizing the claims as "aggressive disinformation" or "a psychological operation."
- The Kremlin did not comment on the one-year anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, likely because Russia has failed to achieve any of its stated objectives and has not made significant territorial gains since July 2022.
- A Russian source capitalized on China's release of a 12-point peace plan to inaccurately portray China as supporting Russia's war in Ukraine.
- US intelligence reportedly continues to assess that China is seriously considering sending lethal aid to Russia amid continued pressure from Western sanctions regimes on Russia's defense industrial base.
- Western governments made a variety of statements on the provision of military aid to Ukraine on February 24.
- The Kremlin escalated its information condition-setting for a possible false-flag operation in occupied Transnistria, Moldova.
- Russian forces continued to conduct ground attacks northwest of Svatove and near Kreminna.
- Russian sources confirmed that Russian forces have split certain Airborne (VDV) force formations across at least two axes of advance.
- Russian forces made marginal territorial gains around Bakhmut and continued to conduct ground attacks across the Donetsk Oblast front line.
- Ukrainian officials suggested that Russian forces may feel insecure in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast.
- Russian authorities continue measures to expand the capacity of Russian peacekeepers.
- Russian sources likely attempted to shift the blame for scandals associated with Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) commanders to the conventional Russian military.
- Ukrainian partisans likely blew up a railway segment near Poshtove, Crimea.
February 23, 2022 | 7 pm ET
The Kremlin appears to be setting conditions for false flag operations on the Chernihiv Oblast international border and in Moldova ahead of the one-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Ukrainian Northern Operational Command reported on February 23 that Russian forces are preparing possible false flag operations in the international border areas of Chernihiv Oblast. The Ukrainian Northern Operational Command stated that Ukrainian intelligence has already observed Russian convoys with unmarked military equipment and personnel dressed in uniforms resembling those worn by the Ukrainian military move to areas near the Chernihiv Oblast border. The Ukrainian Northern Operational Command stated that the purpose of these false flag operations would be to accuse Ukrainian forces of violating the territorial integrity of an unspecified country, very likely referring to Belarus. The Kremlin may be preparing false flag attacks to coerce Belarus into the war following Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko February 16 statement that Belarus would only enter the war if attacked by Ukraine. The Belarusian Ministry of Defense also notably claimed on February 21 that Belarusian forces observed a buildup of Ukrainian forces at its borders. ISW continues to assess that Belarusian or Russian attack on northern Ukrainian regions is highly unlikely, but Russia seeks to force Lukashenko’s hand or blame Ukraine for expanding the war to undermine support for Kyiv. Such a false flag operation could also aim to fix Ukrainian forces at the northern border in an effort to weaken Ukrainian defenses in eastern Ukraine and preparations for counter-offensive operations.
- The Kremlin appears to be setting conditions for false flag operations in Chernihiv Oblast and Moldova ahead of the one-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to deliver boilerplate rhetoric in public events that present him opportunities to shape the Russian information space ahead of the year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
- Putin likely attempted to downplay recent surges of criticism regarding the integration of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics’ (DNR/LNR) into the Russian Armed Forces.
- Putin seems more concerned with appealing to ultranationalist pro-war ideologues with meaningless gestures than with presenting any new approach to achieving the Kremlin’s objectives in Ukraine.
- Putin likely continues to suffer from confirmation bias in his belief that Russia’s will to fight will outlast the West’s will to support Ukraine.
- A Russian source attempted to preempt Western discussions of releasing classified information regarding China’s considerations to provide lethal aid to Russia.
- Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin announced that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) fulfilled Wagner Group’s complete artillery ammunition request on February 23 following immense support for Prigozhin in the Russian information space.
- Russian forces conducted ground attacks near Svatove and Kreminna.
- Russian forces continued ground attacks around Bakhmut, in the Avdiivka-Donetsk City area, and in western Donetsk Oblast.
- Russian authorities announced that they completed the repair of the Kerch Strait Bridge road spans ahead of schedule.
- Russian officials continue to offer incremental and insufficient benefits to support Russian military personnel and defense manufacturers.
- Russian occupation officials continue efforts to militarize Ukrainian children through the installation of military-patriotic educational programs in occupied areas.
February 22 | 9 pm ET
Russian President Vladimir Putin revived his imperialistic narrative that Russia is fighting for Russia's "historic frontiers" on February 22, a narrative that he had similarly voiced in his speech before the re-invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Putin gave a four-minute speech at the rally for the Defenders of the Fatherland Day in Moscow, stating that there is currently "a battle going on for [Russia's] historical frontiers, for [Russian] people." Putin had similarly called territories adjacent to Russia "[Russian] historical land" when announcing Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Putin did not offer other notable remarks on the progress of the war or discuss concrete frontline objectives. The concept of Russia's "historical frontiers" could be used to justify aggression against almost any of Russia's neighbors, as well as Moldova and the Central Asian states that do not share a border with Russia, since all of them contain territory that belonged at one point to either the Soviet Union or the Russian Empire or both.
Putin's speech also followed his February 21 decree revoking his May 2012 edict on Russia's position on Moldovan territorial integrity. Putin revoked his 2012 orders to the Russian Foreign Ministry (MFA) to firmly uphold the principles of the United Nations Charter—which require the development of friendly relations between states on the basis of equality, respect for their sovereignty and territorial integrity—and Russia's commitment to actively seek ways to resolve the Transnistria issue on the basis of respect for Moldovan territorial integrity. The revocation of the 2012 decree does not indicate that Putin intends to attack Moldova—an undertaking for which he lacks the military capability—although it does point toward an escalation in his ongoing efforts to undermine the Moldovan state.
The new decree also canceled the provision of "consistent implementation" of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (START) with the United States. Putin stated that he signed the decree "in order to ensure the national interest of the Russian Federation in connection with the profound changes taking place in international relations."
Ukrainian intelligence officials continue to assess that Russia lacks the combat power and resources needed to sustain its new offensive operations in Ukraine. Representative of the Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Vadym Skibitsky told the AP that Russian forces intensified their offensive operations in at least four or five directions in Luhansk, Donetsk, and Zaporizhia oblasts at the beginning of February but have yet to achieve any significant successes despite continuing to exhaust their personnel and resources. Skibitsky added that Russian forces are concentrating their efforts on capturing Kupyansk, Lyman, Bakhmut, Marinka, Avdiivka, and Vuhledar.
GUR Chief Kyrylo Budanov stated in an interview with Forbes that the Russian offensive is so ineffective as to be almost unnoticeable and noted that Russian forces have been rationing shells and ammunition to sustain assaults on the Bakhmut, Lyman, and Vuhledar directions while conserving shells in other areas. Budanov's statement coincides with ISW's assessment that Russian forces are prioritizing the Bakhmut and Lyman directions and have yet to launch a significant push to advance in areas west of Donetsk City. Budanov added that Russian artillery stocks decreased to 30 percent of the total number of shells. He claimed that Russia has imported a test batch of artillery shells from Iran and is currently attempting to procure another batch of 20,000 shells. Budanov previously estimated that Russian forces fired about 20,000 shells per day in late December 2022, down from 60,000 shells per day during the early stages of the war. Budanov also observed that Russian tactics around Bakhmut and Vuhledar have largely shifted from artillery and mechanized attacks to infantry assaults due to the lack of shells and armored vehicles. Budanov noted that Russia had committed more than 90 percent of its 316,000 mobilized personnel to the frontlines, which further confirms Western and ISW's assessments that Russian forces do not have significant untapped combat-ready reserves. Budanov noted that the Kremlin's stated objective of producing 800 tanks per year is unrealistic and stated that Russia can only produce 40 cruise missiles per month, which they use up in a single round of missile strikes. Russia has already lost at least 1,500 tanks and possibly as many as 2,000, as ISW has previously reported.
Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin directly accused the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) of mistreating Wagner forces, igniting intense backlash in the information space and supporting ISW's prior assessments of a growing Wagner-MoD fissure. Prigozhin accused the MoD of lying about supplying all unconventional units with requested artillery ammunition, claiming instead that Wagner forces receive only 20 percent of the artillery ammunition promised to them. Prigozhin claimed that the MoD's statement is "spitting at the Wagner private military company (PMC)" and an attempt to hide the MoD's "crimes against fighters" who achieve battlefield successes near Bakhmut. Prigozhin published a dossier contrasting Wagner forces' artillery ammunition usage with what the MoD distributes to Wagner forces, an image showing Wagner fighters dead supposedly from the lack of artillery support during assaults, and an interview response claiming that the support of certain regional heads, including Crimean Occupation Governor Sergey Aksyonov, has helped raise awareness of Wagner forces' ammunition shortages. Prigozhin called on the MoD to fulfill its promises rather than "deceiving" the Russian public. Many prominent Russian milbloggers jumped to defend Prigozhin, spreading Prigozhin's claims and accusing the MoD of failing to support the supposedly most effective Russian forces in Ukraine. One milblogger noted that the Russian MoD is now treating Wagner forces in the same way that the MoD treats its conventional forces in Ukraine, a clear step down from Prigozhin's prior posturing as the true victor near Bakhmut. Prigozhin's complaints also confirm that his earlier boasts of Wagner's independence from the Russian MoD were lies. Another Kremlin-affiliated milblogger criticized the rivalry between the Wagner Group and the MoD as counterproductive.
US State Department Spokesperson Ned Price stated that the US government is concerned about the potential strengthening of Russia-China relations. Price stated that the United States is concerned because "these two countries share a vision... in which big countries could bully small countries [and] borders could be redrawn by force." Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office Director Wang Yi in Moscow on February 22. Kremlin newswire TASS reported that Yi said "no matter how the international situation changes, China remains committed to... maintaining positive trends in the development of its relations with Russia."
- Russian President Vladimir Putin revived his imperialistic narrative that Russia is fighting for Russia's "historic frontiers" on February 22, a narrative that he had similarly voiced in his speech before the re-invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022.
- Putin's speech also followed his February 21 decree revoking his May 2012 edict on Russia's position toward Moldovan territorial integrity.
- Ukrainian intelligence officials continue to assess that Russia lacks the combat power and resources necessary to sustain its new offensive operations in Ukraine.
- Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin directly accused the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) of mistreating Wagner forces, igniting intense backlash in the information space and supporting ISW's prior assessments of a growing Wagner-MoD fissure.
- US State Department Spokesperson Ned Price stated that the US government is concerned about the potential strengthening of Russia-China relations.
- Russian forces are likely attempting to increase the tempo of their offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Lyman line.
- Some Russian sources refuted other Russian claims about the intensification of offensive operations in western Luhansk Oblast.
- Russian forces continued to conduct ground attacks throughout the Donetsk Oblast front line and secured marginal territorial gains around Bakhmut.
- Russian and occupation authorities continue to publicly indicate that Russian forces are focusing on defensive operations in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast and Crimea.
- US intelligence officials stated that Russian President Vladimir Putin may mobilize significantly more Russian personnel.
February 21, 8:00 pm ET
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s February 21 address to the Russian Federal Assembly did not articulate specific goals or intentions for the war in Ukraine, instead reinforcing several long-standing rhetorical lines in an effort to buy Putin more space and time for a protracted war. Putin claimed that Russia began the “special military operation” in Ukraine a year ago in order to protect people in Russia’s “historical lands,” ensure Russian domestic security, remedy the threat posed by the Ukrainian “neo-Nazi” regime that he claims has been in place since 2014, and protect the people of Donbas. Putin virulently accused the collective West of arming Ukraine and deploying bases and biolabs close to Russian borders, thereby unleashing the war on Russia. Putin falsely analogized the Ukrainian Armed Forces with various Nazi divisions and thanked the Russian Armed Forces for their efforts in fighting the Nazi threat. The emphasis of a significant portion of the speech was on the supposed resilience of the Russian economic, social, and cultural spheres, and Putin made several recommendations for the development of occupied territories of Ukraine. Putin's speech notably re-engaged with several long-standing Russian information operations regarding the justifications of the war and did not present an inflection in Russia’s rhetorical positioning on the war. Putin could have used this event to articulate new objectives and means for achieving them, such as announcing another formal wave of partial mobilization, redefining the “special military operation” as an official war, or taking additional steps to mobilize the Russian defense industrial base (DIB) in a more concrete way. Instead, Putin said very little of actual substance, likely in order to set continued information conditions for a protracted war in Ukraine by not articulating specific temporal goals and framing the war as existential to the Russian domestic population.
Putin announcement of Russia’s suspension of participation in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) captured more attention than the relatively boilerplate content of the rest of the speech. Towards the end of his speech, Putin claimed that the collective West has used START to try to inflict a strategic defeat on Russia and that Russia is therefore suspending its participation in START, although Putin did emphasize that suspension is not a full withdrawal. Putin called on the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and Russian nuclear energy agency Rosatom to ensure readiness for testing nuclear weapons. Putin may have made this announcement in order to re-introduce nuclear rhetoric into the information space, thereby distracting from the overall lack of substance in the rest of his speech. ISW has previously reported on the Russian use of nuclear rhetoric as an information operation to discourage Ukraine and the West and compensate for Russian battlefield failures. ISW continues to assess that Russia will not employ a nuclear weapon in Ukraine or against NATO, however.
US President Joe Biden gave a speech in Warsaw, Poland on February 21 to reaffirm US and NATO support for Ukraine after his trip to Kyiv. Biden emphasized the unity among NATO countries and stated “our support for Ukraine will not waver, NATO will not be divided, and we will not tire.” Biden also directly addressed Putin’s February 21 speech stating, “the West was not plotting to attack Russia” and “[Putin] could end this war with a word.”
Many Russian milbloggers condemned Putin’s failure to use his speech to forward new war aims, outline new measures to support the war, or hold Russian authorities accountable for their many military failures. Some milbloggers with prior Kremlin affiliation as well as occupation officials attended the speech in person and expressed positive or neutral support for Putin’s framing of the war as a conflict against the West, suspension of Russia’s participation in START, and support of the Donbas separatist republics. Other milbloggers criticized Putin’s address as boilerplate and without meaningful action. Russian milblogger Igor Girkin notably claimed that Putin did not say anything meaningful for 40 minutes; omitted Russia’s military defeats, military failures, and economic downturn; and failed to hold Russian officials accountable. Girkin also expressed frustration at Putin’s failure to use the address to formally recognize the war, announce next objectives, or counter Western sanctions. Another milblogger claimed that the suspension of Russia’s participation in START is politically symbolic but complained that the suspension will not improve Russia’s situation on the battlefield, instead calling on Russia to hinder Western military aid deliveries to Ukraine. A third milblogger compared Putin to a corpse and echoed many of Girkin’s complaints about accountability and action. Other milbloggers similarly noted the need for decisive action and called for Russia to foster the growth of and promote military leaders with a demonstrated history of taking decisive action on the battlefield. Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed that he did not watch Putin’s speech live because he was too busy working to supply Wagner forces with ammunition necessary to continue effective combat operations in Ukraine.
International journalists reportedly obtained the Kremlin’s classified 2021 strategy document on restoring Russian suzerainty over Belarus through the Union State by 2030. The Kyiv Independent, Yahoo News, and several of their international media partners published an investigative report on February 20 about a classified 17-page Russian strategy document on how the Kremlin seeks to absorb the Belarusian state using the Kremlin-dominated Union State structure by 2030. The journalists did not publish the strategy document to avoid compromising sources they said. While ISW is unable to confirm the existence or contents of this document, the reporters’ findings about the strategy document and its various lines of effort for Belarus’ phased military, political, economic, and cultural integration with Russia through the Union State are consistent with ISW’s long-term research and assessments about the Kremlin’s campaigns and strategic objective to subsume Belarus via the Union State.
NATO must seriously plan for the likely future reality of a Russian-controlled Belarus. As ISW previously assessed, Putin will very likely secure significant gains in restoring Russian suzerainty over Belarus regardless of the outcome of his invasion of Ukraine. Russia’s likely permanent gains in Belarus present the West with a decision about how to deal with the potential future security landscape on NATO’s eastern flank. If the West allows Putin to maintain his current gains in Ukraine—particularly Crimea and eastern Kherson Oblast—then the Kremlin will be able to use both occupied Belarusian and Ukrainian territory to further threaten Ukraine and NATO’s eastern flank. The West could alternatively set conditions for a future in which a territorially-whole Ukraine becomes a robust military partner in defending NATO’s eastern flank against Russia and Russian-occupied Belarus. This preferable long-term future is predicated on immediate and sustained decisive Western action to empower Ukraine to expel Russian forces from its territory. It is extraordinal unlikely that the West will be able to defeat or respond effectively to the Russian campaign to absorb Belarus without first defeating the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office Director Wang Yi met in Moscow on February 21 to discuss deepening Sino–Russian cooperation. Patrushev stated that developing a strategic partnership with China is an unconditional foreign policy priority for Russia. Patrushev claimed that Western states are acting against both China and Russia and claimed that both states stand for a fair world order. Wang stated that Sino–Russian relations remain strong and can “will withstand the test of the changing international situation.” Wang will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on February 22. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned on February 18 that China is strongly considering providing lethal support to Russia.
The Financial Times (FT) reported that international companies belonging to Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s continue to garner hundreds of millions of dollars in profits despite long-standing Western sanctions. FT reported that the Prigozhin-controlled company Evro Polis, which received energy concessions from Syria in exchange for recapturing ISIS-controlled oilfields, had net profits of $90 million in 2020 despite US sanctions on the company in 2018, providing a 180 percent return on investment for shareholders that was repatriated to Russia. FT reported that smaller Prigozhin-controlled companies like M Invest, which runs gold mines in Sudan, and Mercury LLC, a Syrian oil company that likely transferred operations to a new business name to evade sanctions, continue to rake in millions in profit. FT’s report further demonstrates the extent to which Western sanctions have failed to stop Russian or Russian-backed actors that help Russia fight against Ukraine.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin’s February 21 address to the Russian Federal Assembly did not articulate specific goals or intentions for the war in Ukraine, instead reinforcing several long-standing rhetorical lines in an effort to buy Putin more space and time for a protracted war.
- Putin announcement of Russia’s suspension of participation in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) captured more attention than the relatively boilerplate content of the rest of the speech.
- US President Joe Biden gave a speech in Warsaw, Poland on February 21 to reaffirm US and NATO support for Ukraine after his trip to Kyiv.
- Many Russian milbloggers condemned Putin’s failure to use his speech to forward new war aims, outline new measures to support the war, or hold Russian authorities accountable for their many military failures.
- International journalists reportedly obtained the Kremlin’s classified 2021 strategy document on restoring Russian suzerainty over Belarus through the Union State by 2030.
- Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office Director Wang Yi met in Moscow on February 21 on deepening Sino–Russan cooperation.
- The Financial Times (FT) reported that Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s international companies continue to garner hundreds of millions of dollars in profits despite long-standing Western sanctions.
- Russian forces continued to conduct limited ground attacks northwest of Svatove and near Kreminna. Ukrainian forces reportedly conducted a limited counterattack near Kreminna.
- Russian forces continued making incremental tactical gains in and around Bakhmut, and continued ground attacks near Avdiivka.
- Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces continue to reinforce and build fortifications in rear areas in southern Ukraine.
- The Kremlin may be directing patronage programs between Russian regions and occupied Ukrainian territory to promote socio-economic recovery and infrastructure development.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin further expanded unrealistic promises of benefits for Russian soldiers in his address to the Russian Federal Assembly.
February 20, 8:45 pm ET
US President Joe Biden visited Kyiv on February 20 ahead of the first anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Biden met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and announced that the US will provide an additional $500 million in military assistance to Ukraine, including howitzer shells, anti-tank missiles, air surveillance radars, and other aid. US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stated that the Biden administration notified Moscow of Biden’s visit shortly before his departure for Ukraine for "deconfliction purposes." Biden’s visit and the timing of his trip to Europe clearly signal continued Western support for Ukraine following concerted Russian efforts to deter Western military aid and political support.
Ukrainian officials continue to respond to statements made by unspecified US defense officials on the pace and prospects of the war as it approaches the one-year mark. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated on February 20 that Ukraine will continue to defend Bakhmut but "not at any cost." Zelensky and Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov also emphasized that Ukrainian troops are continuing to prepare for counteroffensives in the near term. Zelensky and Reznikov’s statements are likely direct responses to unspecified US defense officials, who reportedly told the Washington Post on February 14 that the United States is concerned about Ukraine’s ability to defend Bakhmut while also pursuing counteroffensive operations. ISW continues to assess that Ukraine’s decision to defend Bakhmut is a strategically sound effort to pin Russian forces in a discrete area of the front and attrit them, Zelensky likely tempered his administration’s stance on Bakhmut to make a limited rhetorical concession to US officials. It has long been clear that Ukraine would not continue to defend Bakhmut at the risk of seeing large numbers of Ukrainian troops encircled in the city, so Zelensky’s comment is not likely a real change in Kyiv’s strategy.
Verkhovna Rada Committee on National Security, Defense, and Intelligence member Fedir Venislavskyi notably stated on February 19 that Russia has "all combat-ready units on the line of contact In Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, and partly in Zaporizhia Oblast," reaffirming the assessment that Russia does not have a large uncommitted combat ready reserves that can be deployed and change the course of operations. These Ukrainian statements are consistent with ISW’s assessment that Ukraine has the capacity to regain the initiative in 2023 with sufficient and timely Western backing.
The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) confirmed the formal integration of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics’ (DNR/LNR) militias into the Russian Armed Forces on February 19 in response to growing criticism about reported command changes within the proxy units. The Russian MoD denied reports about the alleged dismissal of officers of the integrated DNR and LNR’s 1st and 2nd Army Corps, likely in response to widespread milblogger and proxy criticisms about the reported dismissal of DNR Militia Spokesman Eduard Basurin on February 17. Basurin discussed his dismissal in a publicized meeting with Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin on February 19 in which he stated that such command changes will "harm" proxy commanders and servicemen. Basurin noted that servicemen in occupied Donetsk Oblast trust their commanders and would be demoralized if those commanders were replaced by people they did not know. Basurin stated that it is important to warn about ongoing command changes and questioned who would be defending Russia if the newly integrated proxy units refuse to fight as a result of the Russian professionalization effort.
The decision to reorganize the DNR and LNR militias amid an ongoing offensive likely indicates that the Russian MoD does not fully grasp the scale of the underlying challenges of integrating irregular forces into the professional military, especially during a period of intense combat operations. The DNR and LNR forces are currently fighting in Donbas in support of Russia’s goal to reach the administrative borders of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and such untimely restructuring of the command structure may reduce cohesion within the proxy units and between them and Russian forces. Russian forces have suffered from their own shortcomings in unit cohesion and will likely face greater tensions with the proxy militias that were not trained to professional standards. Proxy elements have also repeatedly complained about receiving unequal treatment from the Kremlin, and Russian mobilized servicemen have recently accused the DNR and LNR formations of abuse and discrimination in turn. This reorganization may upset and demoralize proxy elements that have enjoyed a great deal of independence as irregular militants for nine years and may risk alienating them amidst the offensive for Donbas. Russia needs DNR and LNR units—which have not been historically effective forces—to maintain positions in western Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts as conventional Russian troops pursue an offensive on select frontlines in eastern Ukraine.
The restructuring of proxy militias also suggests that the Russian military command is trying to achieve all desired reforms while the Russian MoD has the favor of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Russian military command may recognize that Russia does not have the combat capability to reach the administrative borders of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in the short term and is likely trying to rush through some planned reforms before Putin again becomes disillusioned with the Russian MoD’s inability to secure meaningful advances. The Russian military command may alternatively be deluded about its ability to rapidly and seamlessly complete professionalization objectives to aid the ongoing offensive and may not perceive the problems inherent in conducting a significant military reform while pursuing difficult offensive operations. The Russian MoD has been trying to simultaneously professionalize different aspects of Russian forces by targeting Wagner’s influence, integrating mobilized servicemen into proxy and conventional formations, and introducing personal grooming standards and operational security procedures. These efforts would be logical if Russia had initiated them during peacetime but are a bureaucratic burden that will likely generate further discontent toward the already heavily scrutinized Russian MoD. The Russian military command is embarking on too many drastic changes that will either require time or will cause significant tensions that will hinder their full execution even as it orders its forces to conduct extremely challenging military operations that are likely beyond their capabilities in any event.
The Russian military command has likely cut off Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s independent access to artillery shells and heavy weaponry as part of the effort to professionalize Russian conventional forces. Prigozhin stated on February 20 that the Russian military command had stopped providing artillery shells to Wagner as a result of his "complicated relationships" with unspecified but likely Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) officials. Prigozhin claimed that Wagner has "complete shell hunger" as a result of Russian military officials ignoring his demands and introducing new limitations and restrictions on his ammunition procurement. Prigozhin claimed that Wagner servicemen are experiencing twice the number of casualties (without specifying the comparandum) because they are unable to suppress Ukrainian artillery fire and noted that Wagner had sufficient ammunition during the tenure of former Commander of the Russian Joint Grouping of Forces in Ukraine, Army General Sergey Surovikin. Prigozhin denied rumors of having a personal relationship with Surovikin, but noted that he used to meet up with and call Surovikin when he visited the frontlines. Prigozhin also noted that Wagner had been receiving some weapons from unnamed generals and officers who had violated the military code to help him. The Russian MoD has also reportedly cut off Prigozhin’s ability to recruit prisoners and train at select training grounds belonging to the Russian Armed Forces. A milblogger observed that Prigozhin was repeating the experience of former Russian officer Igor Girkin, who led proxy units in Donbas in 2014, claiming that the Russian MoD had also cut off Girkin’s access to reinforcements and supplies while blaming him for losing ground in Slovyansk.
Prigozhin’s appeal may have misrepresented the devastating impact of the lack of artillery ammunition on Wagner to mask his true frustrations with Wagner’s inability to have and operate its own artillery systems independent of conventional Russian units. Prigozhin demanded that the Russian military leadership set aside its principles and save Wagner servicemen by providing shells. It is unlikely that Wagner is operating in the Bakhmut direction completely without artillery support, however. Wagner is likely receiving artillery support from the conventional Russian forces that have been supporting Wagner operations in the area since the Wagner offensive culminated. The Russian military command may have stripped Wagner’s privileges to independently use its own artillery systems, which Prigozhin sought to portray as disregard for Wagner servicemen’s lives. Prigozhin’s rhetoric was partially successful as some prominent milbloggers expressed solidarity with Wagner—even stating that those who boycott Prigozhin are boycotting Russian President Vladimir Putin. Others complained that paramilitaries should not be allowed to replace conventional forces. Prigozhin’s appeal further indicates that Wagner is dependent on the provision of heavy weapons and ammunition by the Russian MoD, and further confirms that Wagner is not the sole force operating around Bakhmut given the ongoing artillery fire in the area.
Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov likely publicized a meeting he had with Prigozhin on an unspecified date in order to assuage Prigozhin’s possible anger at Kadyrov’s likely refusal to join Prigozhin’s informational campaign against the Russian MoD. Kadyrov posted a picture on February 19 showing him meeting with Prigozhin on an unspecified date and applauded the Wagner Group for its success and work in Ukraine. Kadyrov’s endorsement of Prigozhin and the Wagner Group followed Kadyrov‘s equally effusive endorsement of the Russian MoD on February 18, suggesting that Kadyrov is likely trying to maintain his relationships with the MoD and the Kremlin without incurring Prigozhin’s criticism.  Kadyrov did not state that he intends to form a paramilitary company in an unspecified timeframe, as some Western reporting of his comments suggested. Kadyrov rhetorically commented that he might compete with Prigozhin’s Wagner Group one day following the completion of his work in the civil service as Chechen Republic head. Kadyrov has governed the Chechen Republic as its dictator since 2007 and is unlikely to leave his position there any time soon unless he improbably receives a promotion of some sort—certainly not by choice. His observation about "competing" with Wagner was thus likely meant as a compliment to Prigozhin rather than a statement of Kadyrov’s own intentions. Kadyrov already effectively has his own paramilitary structure in the form of the Chechen combat units that he raises and over which he appears to retain some command and control.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the US government is concerned that China is considering providing lethal aid to Russia. Blinken stated in an interview with CBS News on February 19 that he told Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the Munich Security Conference that Chinese lethal support to Russia would have "serious consequences" for US-Chinese relations. The US Treasury and State Department have sanctioned Chinese Changsha Tianyi Space Science and Technology Research Institute Company (Spacety China) for providing satellite imagery of Ukraine to Wagner.
The Russian MoD likely responded to a call for the Russian military to systematically target electrical infrastructure supporting Ukrainian nuclear power plants (NPPs) by setting possible informational conditions for strikes aimed at forcing emergency shutdowns at these NPPs. The Russian MoD falsely claimed on February 19th that Ukrainian officials are planning false-flag attacks at hazardous radiation facilities in Ukraine to accuse Russian forces of conducting indiscriminate strikes on these facilities in violation of the Convention on Nuclear Safety ahead of the 11th emergency special session of the United Nations General Assembly on February 22. A prominent Russian news aggregator recently called on the Russian military to systematically target electrical substations external to Ukrainian NPPs in order to force Ukrainian officials to conduct emergency shutdowns at the plants. The Russian MoD may be starting an information operation aimed at setting informational conditions for conducting such strikes and the potential radiological incidents that could result from systematically depriving the facilities of energy. The attacks advocated by the Russian news aggregator would not likely generate radiological incidents, but attacking anywhere near nuclear power plants always carries some risk of such incidents. Previous Russian strikes against critical infrastructure facilities in Ukraine do not suggest that Russian forces are systematically targeting electrical infrastructure specifically associated with NPPs at this time, however. The Russian MoD’s statement may also be attempting to set informational conditions for a potential radiological incident at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) in light of reports that Russia’s draining of the Kakhovka Reservoir may be putting the ZNPP’s cooling system in peril.
- US President Joe Biden visited Kyiv on February 20 ahead of the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine signaling continued US commitment to supporting Ukraine in its efforts to liberate its territory.
- Ukrainian officials continue to respond to statements made by unspecified US defense officials on the pace and prospects of the war as it approaches the one-year mark.
- The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced the formal integration of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics’ (DNR/LNR) militias into the Russian Armed Forces on February 19 in response to growing criticism about reported command changes within the proxy units.
- The decision to reorganize the DNR and LNR militias amidst an ongoing offensive likely indicates that the Russian MoD does not understand the scale of the challenges of integrating irregular forces into a professional military during intensive combat operations.
- The restructuring of proxy militias suggests that the Russian military command is trying to achieve all its desired reforms while the Russian MoD has the favor of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
- The Russian military command has likely cut off Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s independent access to artillery shells and heavy weaponry as part of the effort to professionalize the Russian conventional forces.
- Prigozhin may have misrepresented the devastating impact of the lack of artillery ammunition on Wagner to mask his true frustrations with Wagner’s inability to have and operate its own artillery systems.
- Chechen Republic head Kadyrov likely attempted to assuage Prigozhin’s possible anger at Kadyrov’s likely refusal to join Prigozhin’s informational campaign against the Russian MoD.
- US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that the US government is concerned about China’s possible consideration of sending lethal aid to Russia.
- The Russian MoD likely responded to a call for the Russian military to systematically target electrical infrastructure supporting Ukrainian nuclear power plants (NPPs) by setting possible informational conditions for strikes aimed at forcing emergency shutdowns at these NPPs.
- Russian forces continued ground assaults along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations around Bakhmut as well as in the Avdiivka-Donetsk City area and western Donetsk Oblast.
- Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces continue to militarize the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP).
- Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces may be struggling to repair air defense systems deployed in Ukraine.
- Russian occupation authorities are using an "anti-terrorist" commission to justify seizing and nationalizing assets in occupied Crimea for economic and military benefit.
February 19 | 7 pm ET
ISW is publishing an abbreviated campaign update today, February 19. This report forecasts the unlikelihood of significantly increased Russian offensive operations this winter based on an assessment of Russian forces already committed to active operations compared with Russia’s overall ground forces order of battle.
The major phase of Russian offensive operations in Luhansk Oblast is underway, and Russia likely lacks sufficient uncommitted reserves to dramatically increase the scale or intensity of the offensive this winter. Russian conventional ground forces are generally deploying and fighting in normal doctrinal formations and units rather than in battalion tactical groups or other ad hoc structures. The observed absence of several critical tank units suggests that the Russian military continues to struggle to replace equipment, especially tanks, lost during previous failed offensive operations. Russian forces almost certainly still have some reconstituted mechanized units in reserve, but the commitment of these limited reserves to the Luhansk Oblast frontline is unlikely to change the course of the ongoing offensive dramatically. The Russian offensive will very likely continue for some time and may temporarily gain momentum as the final reserves are committed—if they are—but will very likely culminate well short of its objectives and likely short of achieving operationally significant gains.
February 18 | 7 pm ET
Russian forces conducted another missile strike attack targeting Ukrainian infrastructure throughout the country. The Ukrainian General Staff reported on February 18 that Russian forces launched 16 missiles targeting civilian infrastructure in Khmelnytskyi City and Ukraiinsk in Donetsk Oblast (about 30km west of Donetsk City). Ukrainian military officials reported that Ukrainian air defense systems shot down two Kalibr missiles of four launched earlier in the day but did not release the total number of intercepted missiles towards the end of the day. Ukrainian officials also did not release information about the type of missiles Russian forces used during this attack as of the time of this publication. Russian sources claimed that Russian forces struck critical infrastructure facilities in Khmelnytskyi City and oblast and Kryvyi Rih. Ukrainian nuclear enterprise Energoatom reported that two Russian missiles flew dangerously close to the South Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant (NPP).
Russian news aggregators are advocating for Russia to carry out “retaliatory strikes” that would systematically target electrical infrastructure supporting Ukrainian nuclear power plants (NPPs) to force Ukraine to conduct emergency shutdowns of its NPPs. Prominent Russian news aggregator Readovka told its audience of almost 1.7 million subscribers that Russian forces need to prioritize the “decommissioning” of the NPPs’ external electrical infrastructure in hopes that doing so would lead to the emergency shutdown of NPPs in Ukraine. Readovka did not advocate for Russian forces to directly strike nuclear power plants or attempt to cause radiological events, but rather to target separate substations that would cut off electrical supply essential to the safe operation of the plants thereby forcing Ukrainian officials to shut the plants down in ways that would make it very difficult to restart them. Readovka stated that the destruction of such targets for the three Ukrainian NPPs outside of Russian-occupied areas “will cause damage many times greater than the last few massive missile strikes.” Readovka claimed with low confidence that the February 18 missile strike on Khmelnytskyi City may have targeted one such substation that supports the Khmelnytskyi NPP, though Ukrainian officials stated that Russian forces hit a military facility and civilian infrastructure. Readovka had previously advocated for such strikes noting that Russia’s massive missile strikes have not generated the desired effect of prompting the Ukrainian government‘s capitulation. ISW has no other evidence that Russia is pursuing or considering such a course of action but observes that the Russian militarization of the Zaporizhzhia NPP, the use of Zaporizhzhia NPP grounds to fire at Ukrainian positions, and the reported Russian strikes on Zaporizhzhia NPP transmission lines all suggest that it is not beyond the realm of the conceivable that the Kremlin might pursue actions with the intent of forcing the emergency shutdowns of Ukrainian nuclear reactors.
- United States Vice President Kamala Harris announced on February 18 that the US had determined that Russia had committed crimes against humanity in Ukraine.
- Russian forces conducted another missile strike attack targeting Ukrainian infrastructure.
- Russian news aggregators are advocating for Russia to carry out “retaliatory strikes” that would systematically target electrical infrastructure supporting Ukrainian nuclear power plants (NPPs) to force Ukraine to conduct emergency shutdowns of its NPPs.
- The Russian Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) reported dismissal of Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) military spokesman Eduard Basurin as part of the formal reorganization of the DNR militia under the Russian MoD triggered another wave of Russian milblogger criticisms against the Russian defense establishment.
- The Kremlin continues to fail to honor its commitments to financially incentivized volunteer forces, which will likely have detrimental ramifications on Russia’s ability to generate volunteer forces in the long-term.
- The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) promoted the Western and Eastern Military District (WMD/EMD) commanders after confirming their appointments to the roles as part of an ongoing effort to present the Russian military as a well-organized fighting force.
- Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov appears to have rebuffed overtures from Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin to join a renewed informational campaign against the Russian MoD.
- Ukrainian officials continue to question the Russian military’s ability to conduct a large-scale offensive throughout Donetsk Oblast.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations northwest of Svatove and in the Kreminna area.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations around Bakhmut, along the western outskirts of Donetsk City, and in western Donetsk Oblast.
- Russian forces are continuing to reinforce defensive positions in occupied Zaporizhia Oblast.
- Russian authorities continue to exaggerate the extent of a Ukrainian threat to Russia’s border regions, attempting to convince the public of the “existential necessity” of the war in Ukraine.
February 17, 5:45pm ET
The Kremlin will likely subsume elements of Belarus’ defense industrial base (DIB) as part of Moscow’s larger effort to reequip the Russian military to support a protracted war against Ukraine. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko stated during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on February 17 that Belarus’ aerospace industry is ready to produce Su-25 ground attack aircraft for the Russian military with the support of Russian technology transfers. Lukashenko also stated that the Belarusian state-run Minsk Automobile Plant began producing components to support Russian KAMAZ (a Russian heavy-duty truck producer) products and expressed willingness to help Russia produce electronic components to substitute for lost Western imports. Lukashenko additionally stated that Belarus is implementing 100 percent of unspecified defense and security cooperation agreements that Belarus and Russia agreed to “three months ago.”
Additional Su-25s and truck parts are likely not critical material for the success of Russia’s long-term war effort. The Kremlin may commandeer Belarusian factories and retool them to produce critical materiel that the Russian military needs, Lukashenko’s statements notwithstanding. The Russians might also seek to repurpose Russian factories currently involved in or tooled for the production of Su-25s and trucks to produce more urgently needed materiel. ISW previously assessed that Russian forces began using Belarusian training grounds and trainers to train mobilized Russians to compensate for Russia‘s degraded training capacity. The Kremlin appears to be similarly incorporating elements of Belarus’ DIB to augment Russian defense output as Putin seeks to reinvigorate Russia’s DIB to support a protracted war with Ukraine.
Lukashenko confirmed that Belarus has implemented more Union State integration programs - marking progress in the Kremlin’s steady pressure campaign to formalize the Russian-Belarusian Union State across decades. Lukashenko stated on February 17 that Russia and Belarus implemented 80 percent of the 28 Union State programs including programs on customs and tax – a significant achievement in the Kremlin’s campaign to formalize the Union State. Lukashenko has historically resisted implementing the Union State integration programs by stalling specifically on complex customs and tax harmonization issues since at least 2019. Lukashenko’s statement that Belarus has finally ratified Union State programs on customs and tax issues therefore marks a significant Russian gain. Lukashenko stated that the remaining unimplemented Union State programs concern humanitarian issues.
Lukashenko is likely paying for his rejection of Putin’s larger demand for Belarusian forces to join the invasion against Ukraine by making smaller concessions that he has stonewalled for years, as ISW assessed. Lukashenko’s belated concessions and continued refusal to commit Belarusian forces to the Russian invasion indicates Lukashenko’s determination to keep Belarusian forces from directly participating in the Russian war.
The Kremlin’s gains in Belarus underscore that Putin’s imperialistic ambitions transcend Ukraine and that containing the Russian threat requires the West’s sustained attention. Putin will very likely make significant gains in restoring Russian suzerainty over Belarus regardless of the outcome of his invasion of Ukraine. ISW has long assessed that the West sometimes ignores Putin’s activities that appear trivial, but that seemingly trivial activities that fly under the radar are essential to Putin’s strategic gains in the long run. Putin’s gains in Belarus indicates that he is reaping the benefits of such long-term campaigns. Russia and Belarus formed the Union State structure in 1999. The Kremlin significantly intensified its political and economic pressure campaigns to integrate Belarus through the Union State structure no later than 2019. Putin and Lukashenko initially ratified the package of 28 Union State integration programs - which are now mostly implemented - in November 2021. Western shortsightedness about the Kremlin’s slower-developing, long-term efforts helps enable Putin’s strategic advances.
The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) confirmed the names of the commanders of Russia’s four military districts, finalizing a complete turnover of the Russian military’s initial command since the start of the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The Russian MoD confirmed on February 17 that it appointed Lieutenant General Andrey Mordvichev as Central Military District (CMD) commander, and that it had previously appointed Colonel General Sergey Kuzovlev as Southern Military District (SMD) commander, Lieutenant General Yevgeny Nikiforov as Western Military District (WMD) commander, and Lieutenant General Rustam Muradov as Eastern Military District (EMD) commander. The Russian MoD confirmed ISW’s previous reporting that Muradov, Nikiforov, and Kuzovlev were the commanders of their respective military districts. Mordvichev reportedly replaced Colonel General Aleksandr Lapin as CMD commander when the Russian military appointed Lapin the Chief of Staff of the Russian Ground Forces on January 10. Lapin appears to be the only previous Russian military commander in Ukraine who retains a significant position at the MoD, as General Alexander Dvornikov, who was previously in charge of Russian forces in Ukraine, Colonel General Aleksandr Chaiko, the former Eastern Military District commander who oversaw the Russian military’s failed offensive to capture Kyiv, and initial WMD commander Colonel General Aleksandr Zhuravlev appear to hold no significant positions.
The formalization of military district commanders is likely part of an effort to distance the Russian military from past failures and to prepare the Russian military for a renewed large-scale offensive in Ukraine. The formalization of military district commanders also accompanies the MoD’s likely attempt to delineate clearer areas of responsibility for each military district in Ukraine. The appointment of these commanders does not represent the restoration of the pre-war MoD leadership bloc or an expansion of the ultranationalist siloviki faction’s power, despite reported connections that Nikiforov has to Wagner Financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and tenuous connections that Mordvichev may have with Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov. The Kremlin likely appointed figures relatively neutral in the struggle between Wagner PMC financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin and the MoD to these positions to appease both parties while also likely setting up potential scapegoats for any future failures in Ukraine to protect recently appointed theater commander and Russian Chief of the General Staff, Army General Valery Gerasimov, from potential criticism.
Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin appears to be mounting an informational counteroffensive against the conventional Russian military establishment. Following a video posted on February 16 of Wagner Group troops stating that they have been cut off from artillery supplies Wagner fighters released another video on February 17 showing a room full of bodies of deceased Wagner fighters. The fighter in the video claims that Wagner is losing hundreds of personnel a day because the Russian MoD is not providing them with the weapons, ammunition, and other supplies that they need. Several Wagner-affiliated Telegram channels also amplified a #GiveShellstoWagner post that explicitly tags the Russian MoD and claims (falsely) that Wagner is the only formation currently advancing in Ukraine and that Wagner elements therefore need immediate support. The escalation of Wagner’s direct accusations against the Russian MoD represents a new informational counteroffensive by Prigozhin that seeks to continue to undermine the Russian MoD and obscure Wagner’s attrition-based operational model by blaming the Russian MoD for its failures.
Prigozhin has likely launched an intensified informational campaign against the Russian MoD in response to the MoD’s likely role in barring the Wagner Group from continuing its prison recruitment campaign and Prigozhin’s overall declining influence. Prigozhin‘s declining prominence and the end of the Wagner Group‘s prison recruitment campaign are likely constraining the Wagner Group‘s operational capabilities in Ukraine, and it appears that the MOD continues to sideline Wagner Group forces from decisive efforts. Prigozhin appears to be courting ultranationalist figures, fellow siloviki such as Chechen Head Ramzan Kadyrov, and select Russian milbloggers to aid him in his effort to regain prominence but will likely find these figures’ support to be unreliable. Prigozhin became such an influential figure in the pro-war ultranationalist community by directing veiled and outright criticism at the conventional Russian establishment and by promoting the Wagner Group as an elite force that could secure tactical gains that the regular Russian military could not. Prigozhin will likely try to emulate this path to renewed prominence, but it is unclear if he will be able to do so.
- The Kremlin will likely subsume elements of Belarus’ defense industrial base (DIB) as part of Moscow’s larger effort to reequip the Russian military to support a protracted war against Ukraine.
- Lukashenko confirmed that Belarus has implemented more Union State integration programs - marking progress in the Kremlin’s decades-long pressure campaign to formalize the Russian-Belarusian Union State.
- The Kremlin’s gains in Belarus underscore that Putin’s imperialistic ambitions transcend Ukraine and that containing the Russian threat requires the West’s sustained attention.
- The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) confirmed the names of the four military district commanders, finalizing a complete turnover of the Russian military’s initial command since the start of the invasion of Ukraine.
- Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin appears to be mounting an informational counteroffensive against the conventional Russian military establishment.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces continued ground attacks around Bakhmut, in the Donetsk City-Avdiivka area, and in western Donetsk Oblast.
- Russian and Ukrainian military activity near Nova Kakhovka, Kherson Oblast indicates that Russian forces are likely deployed to positions close bank of the Dnipro River.
- The United Kingdom Ministry of Defense (UK MoD) reported that Russian forces have likely suffered up to 200,000 casualties since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a variety of laws on February 17 to integrate occupied territories into Russian legal, economic, and administrative structures.
February 16, 6:45 pm ET
Russian forces conducted another missile strike on infrastructure facilities throughout Ukraine on February 16. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces fired 32 air- and sea-launched missiles at Ukraine, including 12 Kh-101/Kh-555 cruise missiles from Tu-95MS aircraft over the Caspian Sea, 8 Kalibr cruise missiles from a Black Sea frigate, 12 Kh-22 cruise missiles from Tu-22M3 long-range bombers over Kursk Oblast, and 2 Kh-59 cruise missiles from Su-35 aircraft over Melitopol, Zaporizhia Oblast. Ukrainian air defense reportedly shot down 14 Kh-101/Kh-555 cruise missiles and 2 Kh-59 cruise missiles, 6 over Mykolaiv Oblast, 2 over Kherson Oblast, and the remainder over western regions of Ukraine. Russian missiles struck infrastructure targets in Lviv, Poltava, Kirovohrad, and Dnipropetrovsk oblasts. Ukrainian Air Force Command spokesperson Yuriy Ihnat noted that Russian forces have changed their tactics and are launching cruise missiles at night, instead of in the middle of day, in order to take Ukrainian air defense forces by surprise.
Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Russian Federation Commissioner for Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova on February 16, confirming that the Kremlin is directly involved in facilitating the deportation and adoption of Ukrainian children into Russian families. During an in-person working meeting with Lvova-Belova, Putin stated that the number of applications submitted by Russian citizens for the adoption of children from Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia, and Kherson oblasts is growing significantly. Lvova-Belova noted that she herself adopted a child from Mariupol and stated that she has particularly been working with Russian families to facilitate the placement of Ukrainian children into Russian homes, highlighting the story of one Moscow Oblast family who took custody of nine children. Lvova-Belova confirmed that Russian regional governors are facilitating adoption efforts and emphasized the role of Chechen Head Ramzan Kadyrov’s efforts to work with her on programs for “difficult teenagers.” Lvova-Belova’s and Putin’s meeting is likely a result of Putin’s January 3 list of instructions to Lvova-Belova and the occupation heads of occupied oblasts directing them to take a number of measures ostensibly to support children in occupied areas of Ukraine. This meeting is additionally noteworthy because it suggests that Putin himself is overseeing and directing efforts to facilitate deportation and adoption programs, which ISW continues to assess may constitute a violation of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
Putin also ostensibly made a limited concession to Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin during his meeting with Lvova-Belova. Lvova-Belova noted that some servicemembers are fighting for Russia in private military companies (PMCs) but that their families aren’t receiving the same social support as families of other servicemembers. Putin responded that volunteers, contract servicemen, and everyone in the Russian Armed Forces are equal and that Russian officials are working on providing social benefits to all families, including those of PMC fighters. While Putin did not mention the Wagner Group explicitly, the allusion to PMCs suggests that Putin to some degree sees such irregular military formations as equal to conventional Russian forces. The provision of social guarantees to families of PMCs, especially Wagner, would mark an inflection from Putin’s recent attempts to disenfranchise Wagner and move closer to the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) establishment, on which ISW has previously reported.
Ukrainian officials stated that Russian forces aim to capture Bakhmut by the first anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine, which would require a significantly higher rate of Russian advance than anything seen for many months. Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov stated on February 16 that Russian forces intend to capture Bakhmut by February 24 to mark the first anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine and plan to conduct a massive series of missile strikes to mark the date. Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin recently stated that he expects Wagner Group fighters to encircle Bakhmut by March or April, and Prigozhin‘s pragmatic assessments of Russian advances in the Bakhmut area have generally been closer to tactical realities than assessments forecasting rapid Russian advances. Russian forces do not appear to be quickening their rate of advance around Bakhmut and are unlikely to meet this reported February 24 goal. Ukrainian forces could always decide that the costs associated with holding Bakhmut are too high and voluntarily withdraw from the city, although Ukrainian forces and leaders continue to indicate that they intend to hold the city. ISW previously assessed that the Ukrainian defense of Bakhmut would likely prevent Putin from claiming that Russian forces secured the city on the anniversary of the invasion in an attempt to renew hope in a Russian victory in Ukraine. The Kremlin may launch another series of missile strikes on civilian targets throughout Ukraine to mark the symbolic anniversary as actual military success continues to evade the Russian military.
Russian forces are reportedly increasing their use of airpower in Ukraine but are unlikely to dedicate significant amounts of airpower to combat operations over Ukrainian-controlled territory. The Financial Times (FT), citing shared NATO-member intelligence, reported on February 14 that Russia is massing fixed-wing and rotary aircraft near the Russo-Ukrainian border and suggested that Russian fighter jets may support an offensive on the ground. Russian opposition outlet Important Stories, citing an internal Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) source, reported on February 16 that the Russian military is changing tactics and has committed to using large amounts of airpower in Ukraine. A senior NATO official reported that 80 percent of Russia’s airpower remains intact and that Russian forces have been attempting to disable Ukrainian air defenses in preparation for a large strike campaign. The United Kingdom Ministry of Defense (UK MoD) reported on February 16 that Russian sortie rates have increased over the past week to levels last seen in summer 2022 but noted that Russian forces have not increased their air presence in Ukraine and assessed that Russian forces are not likely preparing for an extended air campaign. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin stated that current Ukrainian air defense capabilities are not sufficient to combat a renewed wave of air attacks but stated that there are no imminent signs of a massive Russian aerial attack. Important Stories noted that Russian forces have not likely adequately trained enough personnel to fully crew their aircraft. Russian forces would likely suffer unsustainable aircraft losses if they committed aircraft to extended combat operations like a strategic bombing campaign or close air support, especially if Western states provide Ukraine with adequate air defense capabilities.
Russia and Ukraine exchanged 202 prisoners-of-war (POWs) in a one-for-one exchange on February 16. Head of the Ukrainian Presidential Office, Andriy Yermak, stated that of the 101 personnel Ukraine received, 94 were taken prisoner in Mariupol and that 63 of them were defenders of the Azovstal plant. A Russian source expressed frustration that the Russian Ministry of Defense casually released Azovstal POWs while Russian authorities imposed a harsh sentence against Russian journalist Maria Ponomarenko for claiming that Russian forces destroyed the Mariupol Drama Theater. A court in Barnaul, Siberia sentenced Ponomarenko on February 15 under the law against the dissemination of fake information about the Russian military to six years in a strict regime penal colony.
Wagner Group financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin continues to subtly attack the Russian Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) credibility. Wagner Group artillerymen posted a video on social media on February 16 in which they claimed that Wagner Group artillery elements lack artillery ammunition and are “cut off” from ammunition supplies — implying that the Russian MoD is sabotaging Wagner Group’s ammunition supply despite Prigozhin’s claims that the Wagner Group is the main combat-ready force on the frontlines. Prigozhin amplified this narrative when Russian media asked for his comment about the video, stating that these artillerymen are effective fighters simply asking for necessary supplies for success on the battlefield. Prigozhin stated that he personally has had to appeal to “offices in Moscow” to secure resources before and that the fact that he has had to ask for ammunition does not undermine the Russian military's credibility. Prigozhin’s statement nonetheless promotes the larger narrative that the Russian MoD’s incompetence is hamstringing Wagner Group’s frontline forces and supports his larger effort to portray the Russian MoD as ineffective and corrupt.
- Russian forces conducted another series of missile strikes on infrastructure facilities throughout Ukraine on February 16.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Russian Federation Commissioner for Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova on February 16, confirming that the Kremlin is directly involved in facilitating the deportation and adoption of Ukrainian children into Russian families.
- Ukrainian officials stated that Russian forces aim to capture Bakhmut by the first year anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine, which would require a significantly higher rate of Russian advance than has been recently observed.
- Russian forces are reportedly increasing their use of airpower in Ukraine but are unlikely to attempt dramatically increased air operations over Ukrainian-controlled territory.
- Russia and Ukraine exchanged 202 prisoners-of-war (POWs) in a one-for-one exchange.
- Wagner Group financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin continues to subtly attack the Russian Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) credibility.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations northwest of Svatove and near Kreminna.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations around Bakhmut, along the western outskirts of Donetsk City, and in western Donetsk Oblast.
- Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces continued reconnaissance activities along the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast.
- The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) is reportedly continuing its prison recruitment efforts.
- Russian occupation officials continued efforts to integrate occupied areas into the Russian legal system.
- Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko reiterated his longstanding boilerplate rhetoric that Belarusian forces will attack Ukraine if Ukraine or the West attacks Belarus.
February 15, 7:30 pm ET
Russia’s costly military campaign in Ukraine has likely significantly depleted Russian equipment and manpower reserves necessary to sustain a successful large-scale offensive in eastern Ukraine. UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told the BBC that the UK had not seen the Russian “massing of a single force to punch through in a big offensive” and noted that Russians are now trying to advance in Donbas at a “huge cost.” Wallace estimated that Russia could have committed up to 97 percent of its army to the fight in Ukraine and that its combat effectiveness has decreased by 40 percent due to an “almost First World War level of attrition” that measures Russian advances in meters in human wave attacks. ISW cannot independently confirm Wallace’s estimates, but his observation that Russia lacks sufficient mechanized combat power for a breakthrough aligns with previous ISW assessments that the conventional Russian military must undergo significant reconstitution before regaining the ability to conduct effective maneuver warfare. Wallace’s observations also suggest that Russia does not have untapped combat-ready reserves capable of executing a large-scale offensive, which is also ISW’s assessment.
Russia’s inability to regenerate expended mechanized vehicles in the short term further restricts Russian maneuver warfare capabilities. The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) reported that Russia lost about 50 percent of its T-72B and T-72B3M tanks and many T-80 tanks, forcing Russian forces to rely on older equipment. Wallace noted that two-thirds of Russia’s tanks are destroyed or unusable. The UK Ministry of Defense assessed that the Kremlin likely recognizes that Russia’s low industrial output is a “critical weakness,” and that Russian production is not meeting the Kremlin’s long-term requirements. Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council Dmitry Medvedev, for example, called for increased production of weapons and modern tanks on February 9. The Norwegian Intelligence Service (NIS) noted that Russia is still capable of producing large quantities of small arms, missiles, and tanks but that its defense industry base (DIB) will continue to struggle to offset the effects of Western sanctions. The NIS added that Russia will also need to undergo an extensive effort to set up new production lines and will need time to recruit and train workers. Some Russian defense firms continue to complain that they do not have sufficient personnel to support the intensified industrial effort, while Russian pro-war milbloggers noted that Russia needs to immediately embark on modernization and personnel recruitment efforts to solve issues with tank production. Such measures are unlikely to increase the Russian defense industry’s capacity to produce tanks rapidly and at scale, and would certainly not do so in time to affect the outcome of the current Russian offensive or of a Ukrainian counter-offensive launched in the coming months. The timely Western provisions of tanks and armored vehicles to Ukraine would further offset Russia’s ability to conduct mechanized warfare as Russia struggles to restart its defense production in the immediate term. Ukraine likely continues to have a window of opportunity to initiate large-scale counteroffensives over the next few months, but its ability to do so likely rests heavily on the speed and scale at which the West provides it the necessary materiel, particularly tanks and armored vehicles.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin signaled on February 14 that the Ukraine Defense Contact Group’s 54 member states will continue to support Ukraine in the long run. Austin stated that the Ukraine Defense Contact Group (a coalition of 54 states supporting Ukraine’s defense) will “support Ukraine's fight for freedom over the long haul” and will support Ukraine during a spring counteroffensive. The Washington Post reported on February 13 that the Biden administration will announce a new aid package for Ukraine “in the next week.”
The Washington Post reported that US officials have privately signaled to Ukraine that Western security aid to Ukraine is finite, however. The Washington Post reported on February 13 that an anonymous US government official stated that US government officials are trying to “impress upon [Ukrainian officials] that [the US Government] can’t do anything and everything forever.” The Washington Post also reported that US officials stated that recent Western aid packages for Ukraine “represent Kyiv’s best chance to decisively change the course of the war.“
Moscow continues to leverage its relationship with Iran to provide military support for the war in Ukraine. The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) intercepted audio on February 10 reportedly of two Shahed drone operators coordinating targets in what the GUR claimed was a "Kurdish dialect interspersed with Farsi words." ISW cannot identify the dialect in the audio intercept with high confidence, but the fact that the individuals in the audio clip are Shahed operators indicates that they may be operators from Iranian Kurdistan who are likely affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). It is far less likely that Russia has been able to identify or import individual Kurdish militants with experience operating drones to conduct Shahed strikes on Ukraine. ISW has previously reported that IRGC-affiliated elements are likely supporting Russia’s use Shahed drones by acting as operators and trainers, and the operators in the GUR intercept are likely part of the same line of effort. UK outlet The Guardian relatedly reported on February 13 that Iran has smuggled at least 18 long-range drones to Russia using boats and Iranian state-owned aircraft. The Guardian found that these shipments include six Mohajer-6 drones and 12 Shahed-121 and 129 drones, which have air-to-ground strike capabilities and are designed to deliver a payload to the target and return to base, unlike the Shahed-131 and 136 loitering munition-type drones that Russian forces have widely used in Ukraine thus far. Russian milbloggers noted on February 13 that IRGC-affiliated Il-76 cargo aircraft routinely fly to Russia, suggesting that Tehran consistently provides Moscow with a variety of material using IRGC-affiliated planes. These data points, taken in tandem, suggest that Russia continues to rely on Iran for military and technological support in Ukraine and that some Iranian personnel are likely in Ukraine directly supporting Russian attacks on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure, as ISW has previously reported.
The Wagner Group’s continued dissemination of deliberately brutal extrajudicial execution videos and generally graphic content is normalizing an increasing level of brutality and thuggishness within the domestic Russian information space. A Wagner Group-affiliated Telegram channel posted a video on February 12 showing the brutal execution of former Wagner fighter Dmitry Yakushchenko with a sledgehammer. Yakushchenko reportedly was convicted of robbery and murder in Crimea and was serving a 19-year sentence when he joined Wagner. The Wagner-affiliated Telegram channel accused Yakushchenko of defecting to Ukraine and posted a video reportedly of Yakushchenko expressing pro-Ukrainian sentiments while in Ukrainian captivity. Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin later posted a video that appears to be of Yakushchenko alive and uninjured and thanking Wagner for forgiveness. Whether the videos of Yakushchenko’s execution or alleged proof-of-life are real—or in what sequence they might have been recorded—are less important than the wider issue highlighted by the creation and dissemination of such videos. Several prominent milbloggers responded positively to the execution video, claiming that such vicious and inhumane killing is an appropriate way for Wagner to deal with betrayal in its ranks. The Wagner-affiliated channel that originally circulated the video claimed that being accused of brutality during a war is like getting fined for speeding during a car race, which is the same remark made by the channel following the summary execution of ex-Wagner fighter Yevgeny Nuzhin in November 2022. The continued justification and glorification of such brutal tactics is symptomatic of the wider pathology that Wagner has come to represent—one where excessive and performative violence is taken as a necessary tactic of military practice. Many military justice systems, including America's, include death penalties for various crimes, particularly in combat. Militaries fighting for healthy societies that are themselves professional and well-disciplined do not, however, conduct executions with sledgehammers nor do they glory in the vicious brutality of the capital punishments they execute. The Kremlin will likely need to balance its continued desire to use Wagner as a stop-gap measure in pursuing operations in Ukraine with the damage that the increasingly evident chaotic brutality that Wagner has come to institutionalize is inflicting on Russian society.
Russian authorities are increasingly undertaking measures to promote self-censorship in Russia under the guise of countering increased information threats resulting from the invasion of Ukraine. A representative of Russia’s Main Radio Frequency Center (GRChTs), a subsidiary of Russian state media censor Roskomnazdor, announced the launch of the "Okulus" automatic search system that automates scanning text, images, and video footage to detect state-censored content, extremist themes, calls for mass illegal activity, suicide, and pro-drug and pro-LGBTQ content (which Moscow apparently views as posing a national security threat). The GRChTs will reportedly fully develop Okulus by 2025. The Russian Okulus has no connection to any technology offerings of Western companies that have similar names. The GRChTs claimed that an unprecedented amount of fake information disseminated at high speed has flooded the Russian information space following the start of the invasion of Ukraine and that Okulus can analyze 200,000 images per day (an increase from the manual processing of 106 images and 101 videos per day) to address this increase in information. A Belarusian hacker group that supposedly hacked into Okulus claimed that GRChTs programmed Okulus to find personal insults directed at Russian President Vladimir Putin, including comparisons to unflattering figures. Okulus, alongside other recent Kremlin efforts to digitize Russian society while simultaneously expanding control of digital Russia, are likely efforts to scare Russians into further self-censorship. It is also unclear to what extent the Kremlin will shield critical milbloggers from such systems.
Independent Russian language opposition outlet Meduza reported that Roskomnazdor may soon ban YouTube and that Russian state-affiliated social media outlet VK is expanding its social media monopoly to recruit famous Russian-language content creators on YouTube to its video service. VK is also attempting to expand its music streaming service, likely in an effort to eliminate Russians’ interactions with unwanted content. Russian authorities also seek to expand the scope of rhetoric eligible for censorship. A United Russia State Duma Deputy announced on February 12 that he is planning to propose legislation to introduce criminal liability for insulting Russian military figures with the titles "Hero of Russia" and "Hero of the USSR." The Kremlin’s collective skin appears to be thinning as the war protracts at a rate that can be measured by the number of phrases and words Russians are forbidden to say.
Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to publicly stand by the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) as Russian forces continue to suffer catastrophic casualties around Vuhledar, Donetsk Oblast. Putin commented on a Russian state TV show recorded on February 9 and broadcast on February 12 that Russian "naval infantry is working as it should right now" and that the Pacific and Northern fleets are "heroically fighting." Putin likely deliberately praised his Pacific and Northern fleets against the backdrop of highly published and substantial losses to mechanized elements of the 155th Naval Infantry Brigade of the Pacific Fleet in their assault on Vuhledar. The Russian MoD had been silent regarding Russian losses in Vuhledar, and Putin’s comment follows Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu’s statement on February 7 that Russian forces are successfully developing an offensive in Vuhledar. Putin is likely deliberately doubling down on the Russian MoD’s extremely overly optimistic description of the Vuhledar frontline to sustain the narrative of an imminent and sweeping major Russian offensive in Donetsk Oblast. Putin is also likely refraining from siding with critical milbloggers who had been increasingly accusing the Russian MoD and military command of failing to learn from their previous mistakes when conducting mechanized drives.
Putin’s comment, however, may also signal an intent to reinforce the assault on Vuhledar with more mobilized forces or by recommitting remaining Northern Fleet elements to the area. ISW recently observed Ukrainian forces destroying Russian surface-to-air missile systems—reportedly belonging to the 80th Separate Arctic Motorized Rifle Brigade of the Northern Fleet—in occupied Kherson Oblast. Ukrainian officials have also previously reported that the Russian military had been accumulating some forces in Mariupol, just 75km southeast of Vuhledar. These indicators suggest that Russian forces, including elements of the Northern Fleet, may be preparing for commitment to Vuhledar. Putin may have been signaling his continued support for Russian forces there to offset news of significant defeats to conventional Russian units on critical sectors of the front.
The Russian military’s use of mobilized personnel as replacements in battle-damaged units is unlikely to generate sufficient offensive capabilities for a large-scale and rapid mechanized advance. Representative of the Ukrainian Tavriisk operational direction, Oleksiy Dmytrashkivskyi, stated that the Russian military will need to restaff the 155th Naval Infantry Brigade for the third time due to its losses in Vuhledar and previous military failures around Kyiv Oblast and Pavlivka, Donetsk Oblast. Dmytrashkivskyi noted that the 155th Naval Infantry Brigade had 5,000 servicemen prior to its defeat in Vuhledar. A Russian serviceman from the 155th Naval Infantry Brigade who participated in an assault on Vuhledar told a Russian opposition outlet that the brigade was 80% to 90% staffed with mobilized men because the Russian military command consistently reinforces Russian units with mobilized servicemen. Russia’s continued reliance on mobilized men who were unable to perform military tasks such as identifying and detecting minefields or knowing what to do having blundered into them during the assault indicates that these mobilized elements do not have the necessary combat experience necessary to stage a successful mechanized offensive. These mobilized men have likely received limited individual training and lack the unit cohesion and professional training or experience necessary for large-scale mechanized offensives. Russia may deploy additional mobilized elements that may be able to conduct sound defensive operations or attrition-based offensive operations to the Vuhledar frontline, but these mobilized soldiers are unlikely to become effective mechanized elements capable of mounting successful offensive operations in any short period of months.
- Moscow continues to leverage its relationship with Iran to provide military support for the war in Ukraine.
- The Wagner Group’s continued dissemination of deliberately brutal extrajudicial execution videos and generally graphic content is normalizing an increasing level of brutality and thuggishness within the domestic Russian information space.
- Russian military command is facing challenges integrating irregular armed formations with conventional forces.
- Russian authorities are increasingly undertaking measures to promote self-censorship in Russia under the guise of countering increased information threats resulting from the invasion of Ukraine.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to publicly stand by the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) as his naval infantry continues to suffer catastrophic casualties around Vuhledar, Donetsk Oblast.
- Russian forces continued to conduct ground attacks northwest of Svatove and near Kreminna.
- Russian forces made marginal territorial gains near Bakhmut and continued to conduct ground attacks across the Donetsk Oblast front line.
- Russian forces unsuccessfully attacked Ukrainian positions in western Zaporizhia Oblast while continuing to fortify their positions in the region.
- Russian officials and regime-linked actors continue to exploit assets from captured Ukrainian cities for economic and military benefit.
February 12 | 8:45 pm ET
ISW is publishing an abbreviated campaign update today, February 12. This report focuses on the impact of Russian information operations on delaying and deterring Western transfers of high-end weapons systems and other military aid to Ukraine. Russia has partially reconstituted its ability to conduct information operations as part of its hybrid warfare campaigns in support of military operations. These information operations will continue to emerge as Russia attempts to set conditions for upcoming operations and mitigate setbacks, and the West must critically evaluate the context of Russian information operations and avoid simply interacting with them on their own terms.
Russia has partially regained the ability to conduct successful information campaigns in support of strategic objectives and even discrete operational aims. Russian hybrid warfare theory has long called for the integration of information campaigns and military operations, with information operations sometimes taking precedence over kinetic activity. Russia skillfully conducted multiple information campaigns over the two decades preceding the re-invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, most notably those that supported the Minsk II Accords in which Germany and France accepted Russia as a mediator rather than a belligerent in Ukraine. The Biden Administration conducted a remarkable and successful counter-information campaign in the months leading up to the February 2022 full-scale invasion, however, disrupting multiple Russian information campaigns intended to induce Ukrainian surrender, separate Ukraine from the West, and create favorable conditions for the re-invasion. The Biden Administration and the West have also cut off and derailed Kremlin-controlled media operations in the United States and Europe since the start of the re-invasion, causing the Kremlin to struggle to conduct successful information operations. Moscow, as a result, has been unable to achieve the objectives that its pre-re-invasion campaigns had been pursuing. Russia has, however, reconstituted the ability to conduct discrete information campaigns in support of specific strategic objectives and to tailor those campaigns to mitigate battlefield setbacks and to set conditions for future planned operations.
February 11 | 9:00 pm ET
Ukrainian military officials and Russian pro-war nationalist voices are downplaying Russia’s ability to launch a sweeping large-scale offensive in Donetsk Oblast in the current circumstances of the Russian Armed Forces. Representative of the Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR), Andriy Chernyak, stated that Russia does not have the resources necessary to launch a large-scale offensive operation on February 24 to coincide with the anniversary of Russia’s 2022 invasion.[i] Chernyak noted that Russians are preparing to intensify their attacks in eastern Ukraine in the next few weeks and are currently searching for weak spots in Ukrainian defenses. ISW has previously assessed that Russian forces have regained the initiative on the Svatove-Kreminna line but that the offensive has not yet reached its full tempo.[ii] Ukrainian Eastern Grouping of Forces Spokesperson, Colonel Serhiy Cherevaty, also noted that the Russian leadership had ordered the capture of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts’ administrative borders and said that the grinding Russian operations in Bakhmut are a “symbol” of Russia’s inability to conduct rapid and powerful offensive operations.”[iii]
Russian milbloggers continue to appear demoralized at the Kremlin’s prospects for executing a major offensive. Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) commander Alexander Khodakovsky questioned why Russian forces are wasting their limited resources on small-scale grinding advances rather than accumulating combat force to launch larger-scale offensives.[iv] Another milblogger amplified Khodakovsky’s concern, accusing Russian presidential administration officials of creating unattainable expectations for Russian offensives.[v]
- Ukrainian military officials and Russian pro-war nationalist voices are downplaying Russia’s ability to launch a sweeping large-scale offensive in Donetsk Oblast in the current circumstances of the Russian Armed Forces.
- Russian forces’ reported culmination and tactical failures around Vuhledar, Donetsk Oblast, have likely further weakened the Russian ultranationalist community’s belief that Russian forces are able to launch a decisive military effort.
- The disparity between the limited but significant Russian advances in the Bakhmut area and the lack of meaningful advances elsewhere in Ukraine may support milblogger and Ukrainian observations that Russian forces are unable to secure rapid advances through traditional mechanized maneuver warfare.
- Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is trying to salvage his declining influence in Russia as the Kremlin continues to sideline him and his mercenaries.
- Russian forces targeted southern Ukraine with air, missile, and aerial and maritime drone strikes overnight on February 10-11.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations near Svatove and Kreminna.
- Russian forces continue to prioritize offensive operations in Donetsk Oblast.
- Russian occupation authorities are likely draining the Kakhovka Reservoir north of occupied Zaporizhia Oblast.
- Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin confirmed that the Wagner Group stopped recruiting inside Russian prisons due to the expiration of an agreement between the Wagner Group and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD).
February 10 | 5:00 pm ET
Russian forces launched another massive series of missile and drone strikes across Ukraine on February 10. Ukrainian military sources reported that Russian forces launched over 100 missiles against critical and civil infrastructure throughout Ukraine including S-300 surface-to-air missiles in ground attack mode and air and sea-based Kh-101/Kh-55 and Kalibr-28 cruise missiles. The Ukrainian General Staff noted that Russian forces also launched seven Shahed-type drones and that Ukrainian air defense intercepted 61 of the cruise missiles. Ukrainian Air Force spokesperson Yuriy Ihnat noted that Russian forces struck Kharkiv Oblast with S-300 missiles from the direction of Belgorod Oblast and Tokmak, Zaporizhia Oblast. Russian milbloggers widely lauded the wave of strikes and claimed they hit energy infrastructure in Kyiv, Khmelnytskyi, Dnipropetrovsk, Pavlohrad, Vinnytsia, Zaporizhia, Odesa, Mykolaiv, Poltava, Zhytomyr, Kirovohrad, and Kharkiv oblasts. Russian claims of the scale and effectiveness of the strikes are overblown in comparison to official Ukrainian statements, and Russian forces continue to expend already limited stocks of precision munitions on such strikes.
Russian missile overflights of NATO territory are highly unlikely to prompt an escalation, and ISW continues to assess with high confidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin is unwilling to risk a direct conflict with NATO. Russian forces fired two cruise missiles from the Black Sea that reportedly crossed Romanian and Moldovan airspace before entering Ukrainian airspace. Russia’s ongoing campaign of missile strikes in support of its illegal invasion of Ukraine will continue to generate peripheral risks outside of Ukraine, such as these overflights or the risk of air defense incidents (as in Poland on November 15, 2022). However, ISW assesses that NATO (and individual member states) are in full control over its responses and the degree to which it chooses to escalate in response to accidental or intentional Russian overflights or other provocations. ISW also continues to assess with high confidence that Putin does not seek a war with NATO and is unlikely to directly risk an escalation.
Recent footage of a failed Russian assault near Vuhledar, Donetsk Oblast has become the latest point of neuralgia in the Russian information space. Milbloggers latched onto the footage to launch several critiques of Russian military leadership. Russian milbloggers claimed that the same Russian commanders who oversaw highly attritional assaults by the 155th Naval Infantry Brigade on Pavlivka (near Vuhledar) in November 2022 are responsible for the effort to capture Vuhledar, and argued that the video illustrates that these commanders continue to make the same costly mistakes. One Russian milblogger specifically stated that Eastern Grouping of Forces commander Lieutenant General Rustam Muradov is responsible for Russian tactical failures around Vuhledar. Another Russian milblogger called for public trials to punish high-ranking officers who repeatedly fail on the battlefield and argued that Russian forces will continue to repeat the same mistakes if these commanders remain in their positions. Footage shows these Russian forces engaging in highly dysfunctional tactics that are far more indicative of the fact that the 155th Naval Infantry Brigade is likely comprised of poorly trained mobilized personnel than of poor command. Russian milbloggers likely blamed Russian commanders to downplay the fact that the systemic poor training of Russian mobilized personnel will likely continue to result in similar tactical failures throughout Ukraine. Russian milbloggers have routinely accused Russian commanders of being responsible for tactical failures throughout the war, likely to shift the overall Russian military failure in Ukraine from the Russian military as an institution onto individuals.
- Russian forces launched another massive series of missile and drones strikes across Ukraine.
- Russian missile overflights of NATO territory are highly unlikely to prompt an escalation, and ISW continues to assess with high confidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin is unwilling to risk a direct conflict with NATO.
- Recent footage of a failed Russian assault near Vuhledar, Donetsk Oblast has become the next point of neuralgia in the Russian information space and demonstrates the systemic poor training of Russian mobilized personnel.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations northwest of Svatove and around Kreminna.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations in the Bakhmut and Avdiivka-Donetsk City areas as well as in western Donetsk Oblast.
- Russian forces reportedly conducted a limited ground attack in Zaporizhia Oblast.
- Russian authorities are likely placing restrictions on movement in and out of Russia to support crypto-mobilization efforts.
- Russian officials and occupation authorities are intensifying measures to integrate children in occupied territories using government-funded civic organizations.
February 9 | 8:30pm ET
Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin announced on February 9 that the Wagner Group has entirely stopped recruiting prisoners. In a response to a press comment, Prigozhin claimed that Wagner’s recruitment of prisoners has "completely stopped" and that "all obligations are being fulfilled" for those currently under Wagner’s employ. Prigozhin also absurdly claimed that over 10 million Americans have applied to join Wagner. The Wagner Group will likely continue to recruit from prisons, albeit in a much more limited capacity. As ISW has previously noted, Wagner’s recruitment of prisoners has slowed over the last few months, an assessment confirmed by statistics by the Federal Penitentiary Service that show that decreases in the Russian prison population stabilized between November 2022 and January 2023. This phenomenon is consistent with the overall trend of conventional Russian troops slowly replacing the Wagner Group around Bakhmut, indicating that Russian military command may be shifting away from its reliance on Wagner and therefore on using prisoners as cannon fodder.
The Kremlin continues to pursue measures to gradually prepare Russia’s defense-industrial base for a protracted war in Ukraine while avoiding wider economic mobilization. Russian President Vladimir Putin held a meeting with the Supervisory Board of the Agency for Strategic Initiatives on February 9 and instructed the agency to support federal subjects in developing the production of unmanned aircraft systems. Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council Dmitry Medvedev previously stated that Russian military manufacturers intend to expand the supply of reconnaissance and attack drones to support operations in Ukraine, and Russian and Iranian officials are reportedly planning to build a factory in Russia to manufacture 6,000 drones "in the coming years."
Medvedev visited a tank manufacturing plant in Omsk Oblast on February 9 and stated that Russia needs to increase the production of various armaments, including modern tanks, in response to Western military assistance to Ukraine. Dutch open-source group Oryx reported that Russian forces have lost 1,012 destroyed tanks in Ukraine with an additional 546 tanks captured by Ukrainian forces. Oryx reported that these combined losses represent roughly half the tanks that Russian forces committed to Ukraine at the start of the invasion. Fifteen hundred tanks are enough to equip more than 15 tank regiments or brigades or about 150 battalion tactical groups. The Russian military needs to quickly replenish these tank losses to maintain the ability to conduct large-scale mechanized maneuver warfare ahead of a likely increased pace of offensive operations in eastern Ukraine. Medvedev likely framed his calls for increased production as a response to Western military assistance to obscure the fact that substantial military equipment losses are driving the need for increased production. The Kremlin’s efforts to gradually prepare Russia’s defense industrial base for a protracted war while avoiding a wider mobilization of the Russian economy continue to be incompatible with the scale of the war that the Russian military is fighting in Ukraine and the scale of Russian military equipment losses.
A prominent Wagner-linked Russian milblogger called for the dismissal of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu over a Russian military uniform procurement scandal. Many prominent Russian military bloggers harshly criticized Shoigu and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) over news that the 22-year-old son of the Russian Deputy Head of the Federal Agency for State Property Management won a contract to supply the Russian military with new uniforms. The milbloggers argued that the new uniforms are of inferior quality and overpriced (costing about 130,000-210,000 rubles or $1,780 - $2,875 per uniform) and are part of a petty corruption scheme to enrich the families of Russian defense officials. The Grey Zone Telegram channel—a prominent Wagner Group-affiliated milblogger – wrote an explicative-laden rant to its 426,000 subscribers that Shoigu has lost credibility in front of the Russian nation and that Russian President Vladimir Putin can amend the situation by firing Shoigu, Shoigu’s "entourage" in the Russian General Staff and banning Shoigu and his associates from all Russian military affairs. This is the latest episode in a string of events that has prompted Russian military blogger communities to attack the Russian MoD and senior Kremlin officials for petty corruption and ineptitude resulting in battlefield failures and worse quality of life for average Russian soldiers.
The Kremlin continues to show that it is unwilling to curb divisive rhetoric from ultranationalist pro-war figures. Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov publicly sparred with Duma Deputy General Viktor Sobolev following Sobolev’s criticism of Kadyrov’s statements on grooming standards in the Russian military being discriminatory against Muslims and calls for the Russian military to fight satanism in Poland. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated on February 9 that the Kremlin is "not participating in this controversy and would not like to give any assessments" about it. The Kremlin will continue to tolerate divisive rhetoric from ultranationalist figures as it seeks to appeal to the wider pro-war community.
- Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin announced that the Wagner Group has entirely stopped recruiting prisoners.
- The Kremlin continues to pursue measures to gradually prepare Russia’s defense industrial base for a protracted war in Ukraine.
- A prominent Wagner-linked Russian milblogger called for the dismissal of Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu over a Russian military uniform procurement scandal.
- The Kremlin continues to illustrate that it is unwilling to curb divisive rhetoric from ultranationalist pro-war figures.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks in western Donetsk Oblast and the Avdiivka-Donetsk City area and continued offensive operations around Bakhmut.
- Russian forces conducted a limited ground attack in Zaporizhia Oblast.
- Russian sources claimed that the Russian military integrated a Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) volunteer formation into the Russian Armed Forces.
- Russian sources claimed that Russian authorities detained a Ukrainian sabotage and reconnaissance group attempting to assassinate Russian occupation officials.
February 8 | 8:30pm ET
Russian forces have regained the initiative in Ukraine and have begun their next major offensive in Luhansk Oblast. The pace of Russian operations along the Svatove-Kreminna line in western Luhansk Oblast has increased markedly over the past week, and Russian sources are widely reporting that conventional Russian troops are attacking Ukrainian defensive lines and making marginal advances along the Kharkiv-Luhansk Oblast border, particularly northwest of Svatove near Kupyansk and west of Kreminna. Geolocated combat footage has confirmed Russian gains in the Dvorichne area northwest of Svatove. Russian military command additionally appears to have fully committed elements of several conventional divisions to decisive offensive operations along the Svatove-Kreminna line, as ISW previously reported. Elements of several regiments of the 144th and 3rd Motor Rifle Division (20th Combined Arms Army, Western Military District) and a regiment of the 90th Tank Division (Central Military District), supported by elements of the 76th Airborne Division and unspecified Southern Military District elements, are conducting offensive operations along the entire Svatove-Kreminna line and are reportedly advancing against Ukrainian defenses.
The commitment of significant elements of at least three major Russian divisions to offensive operations in this sector indicates the Russian offensive has begun, even if Ukrainian forces are so far preventing Russian forces from securing significant gains. The Russian offensive likely has not yet reached its full tempo; Russian command has not yet committed elements of the 2nd Motorized Rifle Division (1st Guards Tank Army, Western Military District), which deployed to Luhansk Oblast in January after deploying to Belarus. Russian forces are gradually beginning an offensive, but its success is not inherent or predetermined. While Russian forces in Luhansk Oblast now have the initiative (in that Russian forces are setting the terms of battle, ending the period of Ukrainian initiative from August 2022), the full commitment of these forces could lead to their eventual culmination along the Svatove-Kreminna line without achieving their objectives of capturing all of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts. That culmination would likely provide a window of opportunity for Ukrainian forces to exploit with their own counteroffensive.
Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) People’s Militia command reportedly assumed control over a Russian artillery battalion, likely in support of an effort to strengthen degraded DNR forces ahead of an imminent Russian offensive. A Russian source published a video appeal from mobilized personnel of the 640th howitzer battalion from Saratov Oblast on February 8 in which they stated that Russian military officials sent them to join DNR units and that DNR commanders are now trying to transfer them to infantry assault units. ISW has not previously observed Russian personnel subordinated to a DNR formation and this claim, if true, would suggest that Russian forces may be reinforcing degraded DNR formations with mobilized personnel from Russia itself because DNR formations are unable to replenish losses themselves. The reported subordination of Russian military personnel to DNR formations may portend a Russian effort to prepare DNR formations for an expanded role in their zone of responsibility along the western outskirts of Donetsk City, and the transfer of remaining conventional Russian forces from this area to the Bakhmut area and Luhansk Oblast, where Russian forces are conducting an increased pace of offensive operations.
The reported subordination of Russian mobilized personnel to DNR formations could also suggest that Russian military command may be continuing efforts to integrate ad hoc DNR and Luhansk People‘s Republic (LNR) formations into the Russian Armed Forces, but will likely face significant difficulties. The Russian Southern Military District formally controls the armed forces of the DNR and LNR through the 1st and 2nd Army Corps, respectively. However, many DNR and LNR formations remain ad hoc units and are not fully integrated into Russian MoD structures. ISW previously assessed that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) appears to be rushing to integrate irregular conventional forces into a more traditional structure and may be creating new formations from DNR/LNR units in support of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s proposals to create new maneuver divisions. Russian forces would likely need to temporarily remove these irregular forces from frontline positions to integrate them into new Russian formations, a prospect that would not be operationally sound ahead of increased Russan offensive operations in Ukraine. Russian officials therefore may be attempting to gradually integrate these irregular formations through subordinating mobilized personnel under them without disrupting the command structures and existing personnel operating at front line positions. The mobilized personnel of the 640th howitzer battalion claimed that DNR command is retraining assault units for artillery purposes yet still committing their artillery battalion to infantry roles, indicating a breakdown in command and the proper utilization of personnel among DNR formations. The Russian MoD will likely struggle to correct the poor effectiveness of DNR/LNR forces through the rapid integration of Russian personnel.
Russian officials continue to propose measures to prepare Russia’s military industry for a protracted war in Ukraine while also likely setting further conditions for sanctions evasion. Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin stated on February 8 that the Russian government will subsidize investment projects for the modernization of enterprises operating in the interests of the Russian military and will allocate significant funds for manufacturing new military equipment. Mishustin also stated that the Russian government would extend benefits to Russian entrepreneurs who support the Russian military, including extended payment periods on rented federal property. The Kremlin likely intends these measures to augment its overarching effort to gradually prepare Russia’s military industry for a protracted war in Ukraine while avoiding a wider economic mobilization that would create further domestic economic disruptions and corresponding discontent.
Russian officials also likely proposed these measures in coordination with a recent decree excluding Russian officials from requirements to list income declarations and proposals to repeal federal procurement procedures. The Kremlin may be creating a system of subsidies and benefits designed to have little oversight or accounting. This lack of oversight and accounting would likely allow Russian firms to better evade international sanctions regimes targeting Russia’s military industry. The United Kingdom announced a new list of sanctioned entities on February 8 focused on Russia’s military industry. ISW previously reported that 82% of Iranian-made drones downed in Ukraine had chips, semiconductors, and other components from the United States, suggesting that Russia and Iran are likely exploiting loopholes to transfer Western-produced arms components to Russia via proxy actors. The Kremlin’s effort to prepare the Russian military industry for a protracted war in Ukraine in part relies on the ability of Russian military industry to have consistent access to multiple secure supply chains of key foreign components that it otherwise cannot produce.
- Russian forces have regained the initiative in Ukraine and have begun their next major offensive in Luhansk Oblast.
- The commitment of significant elements of at least three major Russian divisions to offensive operations in this sector indicates the Russian offensive has begun, even if Ukrainian forces are so far preventing Russian forces from securing significant gains.
- Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) People’s Militia command reportedly assumed control over a Russian artillery battalion, likely in support of an effort to strengthen degraded DNR forces ahead of an imminent Russian offensive.
- The reported subordination of Russian mobilized personnel to DNR formations could also suggest that Russian military command may be continuing efforts to integrate ad hoc DNR and Luhansk People‘s Republic (LNR) formations into the Russian Armed Forces, but will likely face significant difficulties.
- Russian officials continue to propose measures to prepare Russia’s military industry for a protracted war in Ukraine while also likely setting further conditions for sanctions evasion.
- Russian forces continued offensive actions northwest of Svatove and intensified offensive operations near Kreminna.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks in the Avdiivka-Donetsk City area and western Donetsk Oblast.
- Russian and Ukrainian forces reportedly continue small-scale skirmishes and reconnaissance activity in the Dnipro River delta and on the Kinburn Spit.
- The Wagner Group is reportedly resorting to more coercive tactics in its prison recruitment campaign, possibly in response to the campaign’s declining effectiveness.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu held a press conference on the status of the war on February 7, likely in an attempt to posture the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) as an effective and involved leadership apparatus as the Russian military prepares for a renewed major offensive in Ukraine. Shoigu claimed that Russian forces are successfully developing operations near Bakhmut and Vuhledar and claimed that Russian troops have recently taken control of Soledar, Klishchiivka, Pidhorodne, Krasnopolivka, Blahodatne, and Mykolaivka in the Bakhmut area and Lobkove in Zaporizhia Oblast. Shoigu likely held this press conference in order to create the guise of formality and legitimacy for the Russian MoD as it continues efforts to reform the Russian military, prepare for a renewed offensive, and set conditions for prolonged operations in Ukraine. ISW has previously noted that Russian officials are preparing for an imminent Russian offensive in Ukraine in the coming months, and that these preparations are also happening on the strategic level with Russian command structures.
Ukrainian officials assess that Russian forces are preparing to launch a large-scale decisive offensive in eastern Ukraine in mid-to-late February. Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov stated on February 5 that the Ukrainian military is expecting Russia to start its decisive offensive around February 24 to symbolically tie the attack to the first anniversary of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Reznikov also clarified that the Ukrainian military has not observed the formation of Russian offensive groups in the Kharkiv and Chernihiv directions or Belarus; Ukrainian Southern Operational Command Spokesperson Nataliya Humenyuk noted that Russian forces are likely concentrating on launching offensive operations in the east rather than in southern Ukraine. An unnamed advisor to the Ukrainian military told Financial Times that Russia intends to launch an offensive in the next 10 days (by February 15), a timeline that would allow Russian forces to strike Ukrainian positions before the arrival of Western tanks and infantry fighting vehicles. Luhansk Oblast Administration Head Serhiy Haidai stated that Russian forces are continuing to deploy reserves to Luhansk Oblast to strike after February 15.
Select Russian nationalist voices continued to express skepticism towards Russia’s ability to launch a successful offensive past late February. A Wagner-affiliated milblogger noted that Chief of the Russian General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov (who currently commands Russian forces in Ukraine) has a limited time window to launch a large-scale offensive operation in Ukraine before it is entirely impossible to execute. Another ultra-nationalist voice, former Russian officer Igor Girkin, forecasted that the Russian decisive offensive will not be successful until Russia mobilizes more manpower, industry, and economy. Girkin claimed that an attack without such mobilization would shortly culminate. Both observations highlight that the Russian military command appears to be in a rush to launch the decisive offensive, likely ahead of the arrival of Western military aid and the muddy spring season in Ukraine around April that hindered Russian mechanized maneuvers in spring 2022.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz undermined Russian President Vladimir Putin’s false narrative that the provision of German tanks to Ukraine threatens Russian security. Putin stated on February 2 that German tanks are again threatening Russia, drawing a false parallel with World War II. Scholz stated that Putin’s remarks are "a part of a series of abstruse historical comparisons that he uses to justify his attack on Ukraine." Scholz added that the West and Ukraine have a "consensus" that Ukrainian forces will only use Western-provided weapons to liberate its territories from Russian occupation. Germany’s provision of Leopard tanks does not differ from Western military provisions of Soviet tanks and kit to Ukraine throughout the war, and Putin’s February 2 reaction is likely a continuation of Russian information operation to discourage Western military aid to Ukraine ahead of Russia’s decisive offensive. Kremlin information agents are amplifying similar rhetoric that Ukrainian forces will use Ground Launched Small Diameter Bombs (GLSDM) - which increase the range of HIMARS to 151km from roughly 80km – to target Russian territory alongside occupied Ukrainian territories. Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov confirmed on February 5 that Ukraine agreed to not use Western long-range weapons to strike Russian territories, however.
Kremlin-appointed Russian and occupation officials continue to implement social benefit schemes that target children and teenagers in occupied areas of Ukraine to consolidate social control and integration of these territories into Russia. Russian Commissioner on Children’s Rights, Maria Lvova-Belova (appointed by Russian President Vladimir Putin) met with a slate of Russian occupation officials on February 6 to discuss various issues relating to children and youth in occupied regions of Ukraine. In a meeting with occupation head of Crimea Sergey Aksyonov, Lvova-Belova noted that the Crimean occupation government has been instrumental in "accepting" children from Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia, and Kherson oblasts. Lvova-Belova also reported that the "Day After Tomorrow" organization will begin conducting "rehabilitation" tours in Crimea to work with children who need special psychological assistance. ISW has previously reported on numerous instances of Russian occupation officials using the guise of psychiatric and medical rehabilitation to remove Ukrainian children further into Russian-controlled territory within Ukraine or deport them to Russia. Sevastopol occupation head Mikhail Razvozhaev similarly announced that he met with Lvova Belova on February 6 to discuss "new formats of social work" on behalf of Putin and remarked that most of the children who require social support are not orphans. Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) Head Leonid Pasechnik stated that Lvova-Belova proposed that children whose personal data is in the regional data bank will be "able to find a family in other regions of the Russian Federation." Pasechnik also reported that LNR authorities are working with Novosibirsk Oblast and Khanty-Mansi Okrug to secure "methodological assistance" in resolving issues regarding children in occupied Luhansk Oblast. Lvova-Belova additionally met with Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) Head Denis Pushilin to develop programs "for the socialization of adolescents" and with Zaporizhia occupation head Yevgeny Balitsky to discuss social institutions for children in occupied Zaporizhia Oblast.
Lvova-Belova is likely working directly on Putin’s orders to institute several social institutions and programs in occupied areas of Ukraine to collect personal data on children, carry out various social programming functions aimed at integrating occupied areas using pseudo-humanitarian organizations, and set conditions to legitimize and institutionalize the deportation and adoption of Ukrainian children into Russian families. Putin signed a list of instructions on January 3 that directed Lvova-Belova and directed the occupation heads of Kherson, Zaporizhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk oblasts to "take additional measures to identify minors...left without parental care" in occupied areas to provide them with "state social assistance" and "social support." Lvova-Belova's February 6 meetings with occupation heads are likely the manifestation of Putin’s list of instructions and represent an escalation in efforts by Kremlin-appointed officials to consolidate social integration of occupied territories by targeting children. The implementation of "rehabilitation centers" and the tabulation of children’s personal data through these social programs will likely enable Russian occupation officials to facilitate the forced deportation and adoption of Ukrainian children to Russian families. Occupation officials continue to execute social control measures in occupied areas according to directives provided by Putin’s list of instructions. ISW continues to observe that efforts to deport and forcibly adopt Ukrainian children may constitute a violation of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to open the door for further institutionalized corruption in Russia through legislative manipulations. Putin signed a decree on February 6 allowing Russian deputies and senators to not publish their incomes in the public domain. The law will allow deputies and senators to publish their incomes in an anonymized form that does not contain their personal data. The law will also apply to regional and municipal deputies. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov claimed that the new law will not affect anti-corruption measures and stated that "the conditions of the [special military operation] bring their own specifics." Putin previously approved a decree on December 29, 2022, that exempted all Russian officials, including members of the military and law enforcement, from making public income declarations. These two decrees are likely efforts by the Kremlin to appease the political actors who comprise Putin’s domestic support base and will likely continue to contribute to the institutionalization of corruption in Russia.
The Kremlin continues to deny Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin legitimacy and authority in Russia. A Moscow court refused to recognize Prigozhin as the owner and founder of Wagner private military company (PMC) after revisiting Prigozhin’s lawsuit against Russian journalist Alexei Venediktov on February 6. Prigozhin sued Venediktov in June 2021 for accusing him of being the "owner of Wagner," and the Moscow court concluded that information about Prigozhin’s ownership of Wagner was "unreliable." Prigozhin attempted to reverse the court’s decision on January 19, claiming that Venediktov did not lie about Prigozhin’s ownership of Wagner—likely in an ongoing effort to overcompensate for his declining influence following the replacement of war-torn Wagner forces around Bakhmut with Russian conventional units. ISW previously assessed that the Russian military’s decreasing reliance on Wagner forces around Bakhmut is likely reducing Prigozhin’s influence within the Kremlin inner circle.
Prigozhin’s appeal in the Russian nationalist information space may also be declining as he continues to overcompensate for the culmination of Wagner’s attack around Bakhmut. A prominent Kremlin-affiliated milblogger commented on a video showing Prigozhin piloting an Su-24M bomber aircraft supposedly over Bakhmut on February 6. The milblogger stated that Prigozhin became the main player in Russian information space rather than the traditional Russian military command which "lacked creativity." Prigozhin also "declared" the US, UK, and Canadian governments to be illegitimate states that sponsor terrorism according to the "Wagner Charter." The milblogger stated that Prigozhin’s manipulation of the information space - specifically his skill in trolling - had allowed him to gain more political influence than a Russian Defense Minister. ISW assessed on October 25 that Prigozhin weaponized the Russian information space and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reliance on his forces to gain political leverage in Russia. The milblogger’s acknowledgment of Prigozhin’s flashy tactics may indicate that the non-Wagner-affiliated nationalist information space may be awakening to Prigozhin’s efforts to use the war in Ukraine for personal benefit. Wagner-affiliated milbloggers, in turn, continued to celebrate Prigozhin and previous theater commander Army General Sergey Surovikin as the only two leaders who have "confirmed their high qualifications and enjoy the trust of the political leadership of the country and the people."
Failures of Western sanctions efforts against the provision of arms components to Iran have likely contributed to Russia’s ability to bypass Western sanctions to acquire components for combat drones through military cooperation with Iran. US officials stated on February 5 that Russia and Iran are moving ahead with plans to build an Iranian drone factory on Russian soil, the second such international Iranian drone factory. Iran opened a drone production factory in Tajikistan - a Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) member state and Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) candidate - in May 2022. Russia may leverage its significant economic ties to Tajikistan through the CSTO and EAEU to launder drone components or procure manufactured drones for use in Ukraine to bypass international sanctions.
UK investigative group Conflict Armament Research (CAR) reported in November 2022 that 82% of Iranian Shahed-131, Shahed 136, and Mohajer-6 drones downed in Ukraine had chips, semiconductors, and other components that came from the US despite high import and export control restrictions on such components to Iran. CAR also noted that the downed drones contained higher-end technological capabilities and have a "significant jump in capabilities" compared to other systems previously observed in the Middle East. Most Western-manufactured components in the downed Iranian drones were produced between 2020 and 2021, following the expiration of United Nations Security Council heavy arms sanctions against Iran in 2020. Most Western companies whose components were found in downed Iranian drones in Ukraine denied directly selling components to Russia, Iran, or Belarus since the start of the war. However, the representative of a Swiss manufacturing company noted that it is impossible to be completely sure that distributors of arms components do not sell components to sanctioned entities, implying that Russia, Iran, or other sanctioned states can exploit loopholes allowing them to acquire Western-produced arms components via proxy actors.
- Ukrainian officials assess that Russian forces are preparing to launch a large-scale decisive offensive in eastern Ukraine in mid to late February.
- Select Russian nationalist voices continued to express skepticism toward Russia’s ability to launch a successful offensive past late February.
- German Chancellor Olaf Scholz undermined Russian President Vladimir Putin’s false narrative that the provision of German tanks to Ukraine threatens Russian security.
- Kremlin-appointed Russian and occupation officials continue to implement social benefit schemes that target children and teenagers in occupied areas of Ukraine to consolidate social control and integration of these territories into Russia.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to open the door for further institutionalized corruption in Russia through legislative manipulations.
- The Kremlin continues to deny Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin legitimacy and authority in Russia.
- Prigozhin’s appeal in the Russian nationalist information space may also be declining as he continues to overcompensate for the culmination of Wagner’s attack around Bakhmut.
- Failures of Western sanctions efforts against the provision of arms components to Iran have likely contributed to Russia’s ability to bypass Western sanctions to acquire combat drones through military cooperation with Iran.
- Russian forces likely made tactical gains northeast of Kupyansk between February 4 and February 6, and Russian sources claimed that Russian forces advanced west of previous positions on the Svatove-Kreminna line on February 5 and February 6.
- Ukrainian forces maintain positions in Bilohorivka in Luhansk Oblast as of February 6 despite Russian claims that Russian forces captured Bilohorivka on February 3.
- Russian forces continued ground attacks northeast and south of Bakhmut but still have not encircled the settlement as of February 6.
- Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks in the Avdiivka-Donetsk City area.
- Ukrainian forces continued limited attempts to cross the Dnipro River.
- Russian conventional and irregular forces may be increasingly struggling to recruit from Russian penal colonies due to high casualties among prior penal colony recruits.
- Russian forces continue to struggle with ethnic tensions and tensions between irregular forces.
- Russian officials and occupation authorities may be intensifying operational security to conceal new Russian force deployments in Donbas.
February 5, 2023 | 9pm ET
ISW is publishing an abbreviated campaign update today, February 5. This report focuses on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s cautious approach to risk-taking after having thrown the dice on launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, an act he likely did not see as a risk. Putin’s hesitant wartime decision making demonstrates his desire to avoid risky decisions that could threaten his rule or international escalation—despite the fact his maximalist and unrealistic objective, the full conquest of Ukraine, likely requires the assumption of further risk to have any hope of success.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decisions regarding Ukraine since his initial flawed invasion on February 24, 2022, indicate a likely disconnect between his maximalist objectives and his willingness to take the likely high-risk decisions necessary to achieve them. Putin likely operated under the flawed assumption that Russian forces could force Kyiv to capitulate without any significant military sacrifices and saw Russia’s invasion as a limited and acceptable risk. Captured Russian military plans, for example, revealed that the Kremlin expected Russian forces to capture Kyiv in days, Russian intelligence services reportedly expected the Ukrainian military to collapse, and Kremlin propagandists preemptively published a prewritten article extolling Russia’s “victory” on February 26, 2022. Reports that Putin dismissed the Russian Central Bank’s prescient warnings in February 2022 of the effect of a war in Ukraine on the future of the Russian economy under harsh Western sanctions likely suggest Putin wrongfully assumed the West would not impose major costs on his invasion. The failure of Russian forces in the Battle of Kyiv—and with it the Kremlin’s war plan—forced Putin to face complex decisions as the Kremlin fought an increasingly costly and protracted conventional war. Putin, however, has remained reluctant to order the difficult changes to the Russian military and society that are likely necessary to salvage his war.
Russian decisive offensive operations are unlikely to target Zaporizhia City from the western Donetsk–Zaporizhia frontline as the Russian military continues to prepare for an offensive in western Luhansk Oblast. Advisor to the exiled Ukrainian mayor of Mariupol, Petro Andryushenko, stated that Russian soldiers in Mariupol are telling residents that the Russian military ordered offensive operations against Vuhledar, areas southwest of Bakhmut, Zaporizhia City and Zaporizhia Oblast.[i] Andryushenko added that Russia is also building up forces at barracks and settlements on roads leading to frontline positions, and that Russia had brought an extra 10,000–15,000 troops to Mariupol and its outskirts.[ii] Andryushenko noted the Russian forces reportedly have 30,000 troops in the greater Mariupol area. ISW continues to assess that Russia is concentrating troops and military equipment to stage a decisive offensive on the western Luhansk Oblast and Bakhmut areas.
Western and Ukrainian military officials have repeatedly noted that Russian forces are likely setting conditions to reach the Luhansk and Donetsk oblast borders — an objective that Russian Chief of General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov had also outlined on December 22.[iii] ISW continues to observe Russian transfers of military equipment and elite units and the preparations of logistics in occupied Luhansk Oblast that support Western, Ukrainian, and Russian forecasts for the western Luhansk Oblast–Bakhmut offensive.[iv] Russian forces are also intensifying attacks on Bakhmut while neglecting frontlines around Donetsk City.[v] The Ukrainian military has reported that Russian forces have not massed a powerful enough strike group to conduct an offensive in the Zaporizhia direction.[vi]
Russian sources have been claiming Russian forces have been making territorial gains in Zaporizhia Oblast in late January, claims that ISW assesses were likely an information operation aimed at dispersing Ukrainian forces ahead of the decisive offensive in the east.[vii] Andryushenko had previously stated that Russian officials were restricting Mariupol residents from accessing non-Russian information and were misrepresenting the situation on the frontlines, so Russian forces spreading rumors about an attack on Zaporizhia City may be a continuation of such information operations.[viii] Andryushenko has also consistently reported increases of Russian forces in Mariupol throughout different stages of the war and noted that Russian forces are using the city as a military base due to its proximity to Russia.[ix]
- A Russian decisive offensive operation is unlikely to target Zaporizhia City from the western Donetsk–Zaporizhia frontline.
- Russian forces have not shown the capacity to sustain the multiple simultaneous large-scale offensive operations that would be necessary to reach the administrative borders of Donetsk Oblast and seize Zaporizhia City.
- The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) has launched a series of efforts to restructure and consolidate the mismatched blend of irregular forces supporting Russia’s war in Ukraine into Russia’s conventional military forces.
- The Russian MoD’s decision to undertake significant structural reform while preparing for a major offensive in eastern Ukraine likely represents an effort by Russian Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov to complete reforms while he has Russian President Vladimir Putin’s often fleeting favor.
- Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is overcompensating for his declining influence by continuing to frame himself as the sole victor in the Bakhmut area.
- Russian and Ukrainian officials exchanged 63 Russian POWs for 116 Ukrainian POWs.
- Russian forces conducted limited offensive operations northwest of Svatove and continued offensive operations around Kreminna.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations around Bakhmut and Vuhledar but have slowed the pace of their offensives along the western outskirts of Donetsk City.
- Ukrainian forces continue to target Russian military assets in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast.
- Russian authorities are attempting to reinvigorate force generation efforts by drawing from broader pools of manpower.
The Biden administration announced a new $2.2 billion military aid package to Ukraine on February 3, including precision long-range missiles for HIMARS. The package includes Ground Launched Small Diameter Bombs (GLSDM) that will increase the range of HIMARS to 151km from roughly 80km. The package also includes Javelin anti-armor systems, two HAWK air defense firing units, regular HIMARS ammunition, and 120mm mortar and 155mm artillery rounds.
Russian President Vladimir Putin continued his campaign against certain opposition voices in the domestic information space while continuing to platform critical nationalist milbloggers. Moscow authorities announced the arrest of Alexander Gusov, the alleged administrator of the Novyi Vek and VChK-OGPU Telegram channels, on charges of extortion on February 3. Independent Russian outlet OVD Info claimed that Russian authorities also arrested Oleg Seliverov for charges relating to terrorism after Moscow authorities recently investigated Seliverov for ties to the Nexta Live opposition outlet. Seliverov is an anti-war activist, and VChK-OGPU characterizes itself as exposing the “secrets of officials, oligarchs, gangsters, security officials.” Gusov denied his affiliations with Novyi Vek and VChK-OGPU on January 26, and Seliverov denied associations with Nexta Live on January 28. VChK-OGPU condemned the arrests and claimed that Rostec CEO Sergey Chemezov and Chemezov’s associates influenced the crackdowns. Putin censored several large opposition outlets in late January 2023, as ISW has previously reported. Putin likely aims to crack down against opposition outlets that directly oppose Putin’s regime or goals, including anti-war voices, while upholding voices such as nationalist milbloggers who support Putin’s regime and war even as the milbloggers criticize the regime for its poor execution of war aims they regard as insufficient.
Russian officials continue to perpetuate the information operation that the war in Ukraine is a direct threat to Russian security through legislative manipulations. Bryansk and Kursk oblasts announced on February 3 that they are extending the “yellow” level of terrorist threat indefinitely due to a need for enhanced measures to protect and defend Russian territory. Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on January 31 that simplifies the process of implementing terror threat alerts in Russia and allows Russian regions classed as ”yellow level” of terrorist threat per Putin’s October 19 martial law decree to indefinitely introduce an elevated ”terrorist level.” Bryansk and Kursk oblast officials will likely use this new ”terror level” regime to escalate law enforcement measures in order to crack down on domestic dissent, partially to present the war in Ukraine as directly threatening Russian domestic security in order to generate continued support for Russian operations.
- The Biden administration announced a new $2.2 billion military aid package to Ukraine on February 3, including precision long-range missiles for HIMARS.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin continued his campaign against certain opposition voices in the domestic information space while continuing to platform critical nationalist milbloggers.
- Russian officials continue to perpetuate the information operation that the war in Ukraine is a direct threat to Russian security through legislative manipulations.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Svatove-Kreminna line with an intensified pace of operations near Kreminna.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations around Bakhmut.
- Russian forces did not make any confirmed territorial gains in southern Ukraine.
- Western officials reportedly estimate that Russian forces have sustained almost 200,000 casualties in the war in Ukraine.
- Russian officials continue to rely on government-organized non-governmental organizations operating in occupied territories to create the veneer of grass roots support for Russian occupation.
February 2, 2023 | 7:15 pm ET
A Ukrainian intelligence official stated that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian military to capture Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts by March 2023, supporting ISW’s most likely course of action assessment (MLCOA) for a Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Representative Andriy Chernyak told the Kyiv Post on February 1 that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian military to capture all of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts by March 2023. Chernyak also stated that Russian forces are redeploying additional unspecified assault groups, units, weapons, and military equipment to unspecified areas of eastern Ukraine, likely in the Luhansk Oblast area.
Russian authorities blocked internet cell service in occupied Luhansk Oblast likely as part of an effort to intensify operational security to conceal new Russian force deployments in Luhansk Oblast. The only mobile cell service provider in Russian-occupied Luhansk Oblast reported on February 2 that it would suspend mobile internet coverage in Luhansk Oblast starting on February 11 on orders from the Russian Ministry of Digital Development, Communications and Mass Media. The Ukrainian Resistance Center reported that Russian officials already disabled mobile internet in occupied Luhansk Oblast as of February 2. Ukrainian citizens have used cell phones to collect information about Russian forces in occupied Ukraine and send targeting information to the Ukrainian military. Russian forces may be learning from their previous operational security failures and adapting to protect Russian force concentrations in Luhansk Oblast ahead of the major offensive about which Ukrainian officials are increasingly warning.
Putin may have overestimated the Russian military’s own capabilities again, as ISW previously assessed. ISW has not observed any evidence that Russian forces have restored sufficient combat power to defeat Ukraine’s forces in eastern Ukraine and capture over 11,300 square kilometers of unoccupied Donetsk Oblast (over 42 percent of Donetsk Oblast’s total area) before March as Putin reportedly ordered. ISW previously assessed that a major Russian offensive before April 2023 would likely prematurely culminate during the April spring rain season (if not before) before achieving operationally significant effects. Russian forces’ culmination could then generate favorable conditions for Ukrainian forces to exploit in their own late spring or summer 2023 counteroffensive after incorporating Western tank deliveries.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov supported ISW’s MLCOA assessment and possibly suggested that Russian forces have mobilized substantially more personnel for an imminent offensive. Reznikov stated on February 2 that Russian forces are preparing to launch an offensive, likely in eastern or southern Ukraine. Reznikov stated that Ukrainian officials estimate that the number of mobilized Russian personnel is higher than the Kremlin’s official 300,000 figure. Reznikov stated that the Kremlin mobilized 500,000 Russian soldiers, although it is unclear whether this figure refers to Russian force generation efforts following the start of partial mobilization in September of 2022 or the total number of forces that Russia has committed to the war in Ukraine. Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Head Kyrylo Budanov stated on January 31 that there are currently 326,000 Russian forces fighting in Ukraine, excluding the 150,000 mobilized personnel still at training grounds. The total 476,000 personnel could be representative of Reznikov‘s figure, or the 500,000 figure could reflect an assessment that ongoing Russian crypto-mobilization efforts since the end of the first mobilization wave have generated a substantial number of additional forces. ISW has not observed indicators that crypto-mobilization efforts in past months have produced as many as 200,000 additional mobilized personnel, however, although it is possible. The mobilization of 300,000 Russian citizens generated far-reaching domestic social ramifications and provisioning challenges, and the further covert mobilization of another 200,000 personnel would likely produce similarly noticeable problems.
Russian officials are continuing efforts to frame the war in Ukraine as an existential threat to Russian audiences in order to set information conditions for protracted war and maintain domestic support for continued military operations. In a February 2 speech at a concert dedicated to the 80th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi troops by the Red Army in the Battle of Stalingrad, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that Russia is once again facing a modern manifestation of Nazism that is directly threatening Russian security. Putin falsely accused the collective West of forcing Russia to repel its aggression and remarked that Russia is “once against being threatened with German Leopard tanks” that are “going to fight with Russia on the soil of Ukraine with the hands of Hitler‘s descendants.”  Putin has previously similarly weaponized erroneous historical parallels to analogize the “special military operation” in Ukraine with the Great Patriotic War, partially in an effort to set long-term information conditions for a protracted war in Ukraine. German tanks, and Ukraine and the West more generally, are nowhere near attacking Russian borders. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov similarly perpetuated the information operation that the war in Ukraine poses a tangible domestic threat to Russia on February 2 and claimed that Western-supplied long-range weapons necessitate efforts to drive Ukrainian artillery far enough away from Russian territory that Ukraine will no longer be able to strike these areas. Lavrov is advancing an ongoing information operation that seeks to highlight the fictional threat of Ukrainian ground attacks on Russian territory to make the consequences of the war seem more salient to a domestic audience.
These efforts on the part of Russian officials are not succeeding in generating the likely desired effect of motivating Russians to want to participate in the war, however. Russian State Services announced that as of February 2, the acceptance of applications for new passports has been suspended. Russian research and design joint-stock company Goznak (responsible for manufacturing security products such as banknotes and identity cards) responded with a statement that it has received an inundation of applications for the personalization of foreign passports, which require special embedded microchips. The shortage of microchips for passports and subsequent suspension of passport applications are in part consequences of the mass application for foreign passports in 2022, partially due to the exodus caused by partial mobilization. The Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs reported that it issued over 5.4 million passports in 2022, 40% more than in the previous year. The increase in passport applications indicates that social conditioning efforts to bring the “special military operation” home to Russia and reinvigorate patriotic fervor are not having the desired effect. The Kremlin need not look further than passport statistics to poll domestic attitudes on the Russian population’s desire to fight Putin’s war.
- A Ukrainian intelligence official stated that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian military to capture Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts by March 2023, supporting ISW’s most likely course of action assessment (MLCOA) for a Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine.
- Russian authorities blocked internet cell service in occupied Luhansk Oblast likely as part of an effort to intensify operational security to conceal new Russian force deployments in Luhansk Oblast.
- Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov supported ISW’s MLCOA assessment and possibly suggested that Russian forces have mobilized substantially more personnel for an imminent offensive.
- Russian officials are continuing efforts to frame the war in Ukraine as an existential threat to Russian audiences in order to set information conditions for protracted war and maintain domestic support for continued military operations. These efforts on the part of Russian officials are not succeeding in generating the likely desired effect of motivating Russians to want to participate in the war, however.
- Russian and Ukrainian sources suggested that Russian forces may be preparing offensive actions in the Svatove area.
- Russian forces intensified ground attacks in the Kreminna area on February 2.
- Russian forces continued ground attacks northeast and southwest of Bakhmut.
- Russian officials are likely trying to prepare the Russian military’s disciplinary apparatus for an influx of mobilized personnel.
- Russian forces and occupation authorities continue efforts to identify and arrest Crimean Tatars on allegations that they associate with extremist movements banned in Russia.
- Russian federal subjects and occupation authorities continued announcing patronage programs to support infrastructure projects in occupied territories.
February 1, 2023 | 7:15 pm ET
Ukrainian officials are continuing to warn about Russia’s intention of conducting a decisive offensive operation in Donbas in February and/or March, supporting ISW’s most likely course of action assessment (MLCOA). Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Representative Andriy Yusov stated on February 1 that Ukraine is on the eve of an active phase of combat that will take place over the next two months. Yusov noted that the poor state of Russian military equipment will force the Russian military command to mass forces to outnumber Ukrainian defenders in order to make gains. Ukrainian Colonel Serhiy Hrabskyi stated that Russia does not have sufficient forces to conduct an attack along the entire 1,500km frontline in Ukraine and will concentrate its efforts on seizing Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. A prominent Russian milblogger observed that the prospect of a Russian offensive operation does not appear to be triggering panic among Ukrainian forces, who are continuing to build out their counteroffensive plans. ISW reported on January 31 that Ukrainian military officials reiterated their intent to launch major counteroffensive operations by summer 2023.
Russian President Vladimir Putin may be setting conditions for further Russian cross-border raids into northeastern areas of Ukraine, likely in an effort to further domestic information operations and pin Ukrainian forces against northern border areas. Putin held a meeting on February 1 to discuss the restoration of residential infrastructure in Crimea, Belgorod, Bryansk, and Kursk oblasts following “shelling by Neo-Nazi formations.” Putin noted that his administration is prioritizing the ending of Ukrainian shelling of border regions, but that this task is “the business of the military department.” Putin’s focus on the supposed danger of Ukrainian shelling of border regions likely serves a two-fold purpose. It furthers an information operation intended to frame the war in Ukraine as an existential threat to Russian citizens in order to generate domestic support for a protracted war. ISW has reported on previous methods by which Russian authorities have engaged in this information operation. Putin may also be setting conditions for escalated cross-border raids in order to distract and disperse Ukrainian forces from critical axes of advance by pinning them to northeastern border areas. ISW continues to assess that a Russian invasion from Belarus is exceedingly unlikely, and the ongoing information operation to pin Ukrainian troops against the northern Ukraine-Belarus border seems to be faltering as Ukrainian officials increasingly assess that this contingency is improbable. The threat of cross-border raids from Belgorod, Bryansk, and Kursk oblasts into northern and northeastern Ukraine is likely an attempt to force Ukraine to deploy limited elements to these areas to protect against such attacks, thus dispersing Ukrainian troops to an extent in advance of a likely Russian offensive operation in the coming months. ISW has previously reported similar Russian distraction and dispersion operations in Zaporizhia Oblast.
The Kremlin is likely seizing an opportunity to discredit Igor Girkin, a prominent critical voice within the Russian nationalist space and former Russian officer, following his altercation with Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin. Russian propagandist Vladimir Solovyov accused Girkin of cowardice following his decision to retreat from Slovyansk, Donetsk Oblast, in July 2014. This is a common criticism Girkin’s enemies direct at him. Solovyov’s remarks echo Prigozhin’s ongoing efforts to attack Girkin across the Russian information space, which ISW assessed was an attempt to undermine Girkin’s patronage networks and influence among Russian ultranationalists. Wagner-affiliated milbloggers also portray Girkin as a coward through shared interviews with individuals claiming to be Girkin’s acquaintances. ISW previously assessed that Prigozhin’s criticism of Girkin will likely benefit the Kremlin, who will seize this opportunity to discredit an avid critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
- Ukrainian officials are continuing to warn about Russia’s intention of conducting a decisive offensive operation in Donbas in February and/or March, supporting ISW’s most likely course of action assessment (MLCOA).
- Russian President Vladimir Putin may be setting conditions for further Russian cross-border raids into northeastern areas of Ukraine, likely in an effort to further domestic information operations and pin Ukrainian forces against northern border areas.
- Russian forces continued ground attacks northeast and southwest of Bakhmut.
- Russian forces continued limited ground attacks to regain lost positions on the Svatove-Kreminna line on February 1.
- Russian forces are continuing to carry out unsuccessful disruption missions on islands in the Dnipro River delta in Kherson Oblast in an effort to prevent Ukrainian forces from gaining ground on the islands.
- Russian officials plan to propose a moratorium on the public procurement law to simplify spending procedures amid an increasingly costly war effort.
- The Wagner Group’s prison recruitment efforts may have slowed in previous months.
- Crimean partisans may have conducted an improvised explosive device (IED) attack in occupied Crimea on January 30.