Russian forces conducted their ninth large-scale missile campaign against critical Ukrainian energy infrastructure on December 16 and carried out one of the largest missile attacks on Kyiv to date. Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief General Valery Zaluzhny stated that Ukrainian air defenses shot down 60 of 76 Russian missiles, of which 72 were cruise missiles of the Kh-101, Kalibr, and Kh-22 types, and four guided missiles of the Kh-59 and Kh-31P types. The Kyiv City Military Administration reported that Ukrainian forces destroyed 37 of 40 missiles targeting Kyiv. Ukrainian officials also reported that Russian missiles struck nine energy infrastructure facilities and some residential buildings in Zhytomyr, Kyiv, Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, and Zaporizhia oblasts. Ukrainian military officials noted that Russian forces launched most of their missiles from the Black and Caspian seas and the Engels airfield in Saratov Oblast. Russian forces are likely intensifying their strikes on Kyiv to stir up societal discontent in the capital, but these missile attacks are unlikely to break Ukrainian will.
Russian strikes continue to pose a significant threat to Ukrainian civilians but are not improving the ability of Russian forces to conduct offensive operations in Ukraine. Ukraine’s state electricity transmission system operator Ukrenergo stated that restoration of electricity may be delayed by the December 16 strikes and announced a state of emergency aimed at electricity market suppliers. Ukrenergo added that Ukraine’s United Energy System had to cut more than 50% of energy consumption as a result of the strikes.
Russian National Security Council Deputy Chairman Dmitry Medvedev made inflammatory but irrelevant comments in support of ongoing information operations that aim to weaken Western support for Ukraine. Medvedev published on December 16 a list of what he described as legitimate military targets, which included “the armed forces of other countries that have officially entered the war” in Ukraine. Medvedev rhetorically questioned whether Western military aid to Ukraine means that NATO members have entered the war against Russia. Medvedev did not explicitly state that the armed forces of NATO members are legitimate military targets nor that he was stating an official Russian position on legitimate targets in the war in Ukraine. Medvedev likely made the comments in coordination with the large-scale Russian missile strikes in an attempt to weaken Western support for Ukraine by stoking fears of escalation between the West and Russia. Medvedev has previously made purposefully inflammatory comments in support of other information operations with the same aims. Medvedev’s past and current inflammatory rhetoric continues to be out of touch with actual Kremlin positions regarding the war in Ukraine. Russian forces have and will likely continue to target Western military equipment that Ukrainian forces have deployed in Ukraine, of course, but there is nothing surprising or remarkable in that fact.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will likely pressure Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko for Russian-Belarusian integration concessions at an upcoming December 19 meeting in Minsk—Putin’s first meeting with Lukashenko in Minsk since 2019. Lukashenko and Putin reportedly will discuss Russian-Belarusian integration issues, unspecified military-political issues, and implementing Union State programs. The Union State is a supranational agreement from 1997 with the stated goal of the federal integration of Russia and Belarus under a joint structure. The Kremlin seeks to use the Union State to establish Russian suzerainty (control) over Belarus.
Lukashenko is already setting information conditions to deflect Russian integration demands as he has done for decades. Lukashenko stressed that “nobody but us is ruling Belarus,” and that Belarus is ready to build relations with Russia but that their ties “should always proceed from the premise that we are a sovereign and independent state.” It is unclear whether Putin will be successful in extracting his desired concessions from Lukashenko. Lukashenko has so far largely resisted intensified Russian integration demands and has refused to commit Belarusian forces to join Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Putin’s visit to Minsk could indicate that Putin is trying to set conditions for the newly assessed most dangerous course of action (MDCOA) that ISW reported on December 15: a renewed offensive against Ukraine—possibly against northern Ukraine or Kyiv—in winter 2023. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin signed an unspecified document to further strengthen bilateral security ties—likely in the context of the Russian-Belarusian Union State—and increase Russian pressure on Belarus to further support the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Minsk on December 3. ISW’s December 15 MDCOA warning forecast about a potential Russian offensive against northern Ukraine in winter 2023 remains a worst-case scenario within the forecast cone. ISW currently assesses a Russian invasion of Ukraine from Belarus as low, but possible. Belarusian forces remain extremely unlikely to invade Ukraine without a Russian strike force. It is far from clear that Lukashenko would commit Belarusian forces to fight in Ukraine even alongside Russian troops. There are still no indicators that Russian forces are forming a strike force in Belarus.
Putin and Lukashenko’s meeting will—at a minimum—advance a separate Russian information operation that seeks to break Ukrainian will and Western willingness to support Ukraine, however. This meeting will reinforce the Russian information operation designed to convince Ukrainians and Westerners that Russia may attack Ukraine from Belarus. Russia’s continued strikes against Kyiv, constant troop deployments to Belarus, and continued bellicose rhetoric are part of (and mutually reinforce) this information operation. The Kremlin is unlikely to break the Ukrainian will to fight. The Kremlin likely seeks to convince the West to accept a false fait accompli that Ukraine cannot materially alter the current front lines and that the war is effectively stalemated. ISW assesses that such a conclusion is inaccurate and that Ukraine stands a good chance of regaining considerable critical terrain in the coming months.
Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly ignored warnings about worst-case economic scenario assessments from senior Kremlin financial advisors prior to launching his full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Unnamed sources told the Financial Times (FT) that the head of the Russian Central Bank, Elvira Nabiullina, and the head of Sberbank, German Gref, briefed a 39-page assessment to Putin outlining the long-term damage to the Russian economy if Russia recognized the independence of proxy republics in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts a month prior to the full-scale invasion. FT sources noted that both Nabiullina and Gref spoke to Putin of their own initiative but were not brave enough to tell Putin that Russia risked a geopolitical disaster when he interrupted the brief to ask how Russia can prevent a worst-case scenario. Nabiullina and Gref specifically warned Putin that Western sanctions would set the Russian economy back by decades and negatively impact the Russian quality of life. Both Nabiullina and Gref reportedly were shocked when Putin launched the invasion on February 24 and indirectly expressed some discontent to their inner circles, despite implementing provisions to mitigate some negative impacts of sanctions during the first weeks of the war.
The report, if true, indicates that Putin had received some prognosis of the war’s risks and costs but decided to ignore them in favor of his maximalist goal of seizing Ukraine. It is unclear if Putin received and subsequently ignored similar reports from the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), but his engagement with Nabiullina and Gref shows that he had some awareness of the potential long-term risks of the war. Nabiullina’s and Gref’s reported hesitance to dissuade Putin also demonstrates the unbalanced power dynamic that may have prompted some Russian officials to play along with Putin’s bad decisions rather than remonstrating with him.
Russia is continuing to endure some economic challenges as a direct result of Putin’s war in Ukraine. FT reported that Nabiullina was able to protect the Russian economy from the worst-case scenario by undertaking provisions such as regulation of the exchange control during the first day of the war, but some war costs are likely catching up to the Kremlin. Russia’s Central Bank announced on December 16 that mobilization had sparked increasing manpower shortages across several industries in Russia. The Central Bank report added that Russia has limited possibilities to expand its production as a result of shortages in the state labor market and noted that “unemployment hit a historic low.” The costs of Putin’s war, including the human and labor cost of his force generation efforts, will continue to have a long-term effect on Russia’s economy, as ISW has previously assessed.
- Russian forces conducted another set of large-scale missile strikes throughout Ukraine and one of the largest missile attacks against Kyiv to date.
- Russian strikes continue to pose a significant threat to Ukrainian civilians despite generating no improvement in the Russian ability to conduct offensive operations.
- Dmitry Medvedev made inflammatory but irrelevant comments in support of ongoing information operations that aim to weaken Western support for Ukraine.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin will likely pressure Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to support the Russian war in Ukraine further at a December 19 meeting in Minsk.
- Lukashenko is already setting information conditions to deflect Russian integration demands.
- Putin’s upcoming visit to Minsk could indicate that he is setting conditions for a new offensive from Belarusian territory.
- Putin and Lukashenko’s meeting will likely advance a separate Russian information operation that seeks to break Ukrainian will and Western willingness to support Ukraine.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly ignored worst-case scenario assessments of potential damage to the Russian economy prior to launching his full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
- Russia is continuing to face economic challenges as a direct result of the war in Ukraine.
- Russian forces conducted counterattacks in the Svatove and Kreminna areas.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations in the Bakhmut and Avdiivka-Donetsk City areas.
- Russian forces continued to undertake defensive measures on the left (east) bank of the Dnipro River.
- Russian officials will likely struggle to recruit additional contract servicemembers despite ongoing efforts to do so.
- Russian occupation authorities continued seizing civilian infrastructure to treat wounded Russian servicemen and aid Russian forces operating in occupied territories.