Russia may be setting conditions to conduct a new offensive against Ukraine— possibly against Kyiv—in winter 2023. Such an attack is extraordinarily unlikely to succeed. A Russian attack from Belarus is not imminent at this time.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s objectives in Ukraine have not changed according to Ukrainian officials’ and ISW’s assessments based on Kremlin statements and actions. Putin continues to pursue maximalist goals in Ukraine using multiple mechanisms intended to compel Ukrainians to negotiate on Russia’s terms and likely make preemptive concessions highly favorable to Russia. This fundamental objective has underpinned the Kremlin’s various military, political, economic, and diplomatic efforts over the past 10 months in Ukraine.
Various Ukrainian defense officials continue to assess that Putin maintains maximalist goals and seeks to compel Ukraine to enter negotiations and/or accept a ceasefire to advance Russian objectives. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar stated on December 15 that the ultimate goal of Russia is the “complete conquest and control over Ukraine,” and noted that recent Russian information operations have been aimed at compelling Ukraine to enter negotiations with Russia. Deputy Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the Ukrainian General Staff, Brigadier General Oleksiy Hromov, stated that Russia seeks to force Ukraine into negotiations in order to generate a strategic pause that would afford Russian troops time to regroup and regain strength. Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Valery Zaluzhny emphasized that Russia is seeking to temporarily force Ukraine to agree to stop fighting in order to gather renewed resources and prepare for renewed future offensive operations.
Putin is using two simultaneous military efforts to pursue his ultimate objective of regaining control of Ukraine and securing major territorial concessions. Russia’s current offensive pushes in Donetsk Oblast, particularly around Bakhmut and in the Avdiivka-Donetsk City area and the ongoing campaign of massive missile strikes on critical Ukrainian infrastructure are intended to create realities on the ground that Russia will likely demand Ukraine recognize as the basis for negotiations. Russian troops have reinforced their efforts throughout Donetsk Oblast with freed-up combat power following the withdrawal from the west (right) bank of Kherson Oblast and have been consistently pursuing territorial objectives, albeit unsuccessfully. ISW continues to assess that Putin has given the order for Russian troops to complete the capture of the entirety of Donetsk Oblast, and that current Russian offensive efforts around Bakhmut, Donetsk City, and in western Donetsk Oblast are part of the effort to execute that order. Ukrainian officials reiterated that the immediate focus of Russian efforts is securing territorial gains in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts. Putin likely hopes that these offensive operations will threaten Ukraine‘s ability to further defend territory and cause significant damage to Ukrainian combat power so that Ukraine will have no choice but to negotiate a ceasefire, concede on Russia’s terms, and ultimately allow Russian troops the time to reconstitute and relaunch new offensive operations in the future. The massive Russian missile strikes against critical Ukrainian infrastructure are Putin’s second military effort to compel Ukraine to surrender or enter negotiations on Putin’s terms. Over the course of the last two months, Russian forces have used missiles and drones to systematically target civilian and energy infrastructure in a way that generates disproportionate psychological impacts but does not achieve significant military objectives.
These two military efforts are failing to coerce Ukraine into negotiating or offering preemptive concessions, and Ukraine has retained the battlefield initiative following its two successive counteroffensive operations in Kharkiv and Kherson oblasts. Putin may therefore be setting conditions for a third, sequential military effort in the likely event that these two efforts fail to secure his objectives by preparing for a renewed offensive against Ukraine in the winter of 2023. Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Valery Zaluzhny suggested that such an offensive could take place as early as January, in the worst-case scenario, and March, in the best case. Zaluzhny additionally observed that this new offensive could take the form of another mechanized attack against Kyiv from Belarusian territory. As ISW has previously reported, there are a series of observed indicators that suggest that Russian forces may indeed be preparing for a new offensive operation—including the reconsolidation of force compositions along major axes of advance and the movement of heavy equipment to the frontlines.
The winter 2023 timeframe suggested by Ukrainian officials for such a potential offensive is consistent with ISW’s long-standing assessment that the winter will facilitate Ukrainian and Russian offensive operations and is consistent with the current projected timeline for the completion of Russian force generation efforts. Putin announced the beginning of mobilization in late September 2022. Putin stated that Russia fielded 150,000 mobilized men of the initial 300,000 mobilized recruits in Ukraine on December 7—about two months after beginning mobilization—and that 150,000 mobilized men continue to train in Russia to prepare for deployment. The remaining 150,000 mobilized men in training should deploy to Ukraine around February to March 2023 if the training and deployment rate remains uniform and as Putin described. Zaluzhny noted that Russia is currently preparing 200,000 troops for deployment—an expanded estimate which likely incorporates servicemembers from the autumn 2022 conscription cycle who are training alongside the remaining mobilized recruits. The combination of ongoing training efforts for both mobilized recruits and the Fall 2022 conscript class, alongside indications that Russia is preparing for another wave of “partial” mobilization, indicate that Russia is trying to generate the combat capability for a renewed offensive in the early months of 2023.
Russian forces may be setting conditions to attack from Belarus, though ISW continues to assess a Russian invasion from Belarus is not imminent at this time. The Ukrainian General Staff’s daily reports from December 1 to 15 uniformly state that Ukrainian officials have not detected Russian forces in Belarus forming strike groups necessary to attack northern Ukraine. There are no observed open-source indicators that Russian forces are forming strike groups within Belarus as of December 15. Belarusian forces remain extremely unlikely to invade Ukraine without a Russian strike group.
The following indicators support a forecast cone that Russia may be setting conditions to attack Ukraine from Belarus in winter 2023. ISW will continue to monitor the situation and provide updated assessments.
– Russia’s military presence in Belarus has been growing since fall 2022. Multiple official Ukrainian and independent Belarusian sources have reported a growing Russian military presence in Belarus since October 2022. Hromov stated on December 15 that Russia most recently deployed one battalion’s worth of tanks to the Obuz-Lesnovsky Training Ground in Brest and one battalion’s worth of tanks to the Losivdo Training Ground in Vitebsk during the week of December 4-11. A senior Ukrainian intelligence official stated on October 24 that Russia deployed about 3,200 personnel to Belarus. These numbers alone are not sufficient to support an invasion of Ukraine but could indicate an effort to again accumulate a large Russian force in Belarus.
– Ukrainian officials claim that Russian forces in Belarus do not have specific plans to return to Russia after completing their training. Hromov stated that the Russian military has not given Russian trainees in Belarus any indication about their future tasks or whether they will deploy back to Russia, remain in Belarus, or attack Ukraine. Russian commanders may be keeping options open for a potential attack against Ukraine from Belarus in winter 2023.
– Senior Ukrainian officials are increasingly warning that Russian forces may attempt to attack Kyiv. Zaluzhny said that Russian forces may attempt to attack Ukraine from Belarus between January and March 2023 and stated “I have no doubt [Russian forces] will have another go at Kyiv” on December 15. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba stated on December 13 that Russia may be preparing for a large-scale offensive in January and February 2023.
– Elements of the 1st Guards Tank Army—in principle the Russian military’s most elite heavy formation that could form the core of a strike force—are reportedly training in Belarus as of December 15. Hromov stated that elements of the 2nd Motorized Rifle Division of the 1st Guards Tank Army are training in Belarus. All maneuver elements of the 1st Guards Tank Army have taken heavy losses near Kharkiv, Sumy, and eastern Kyiv Oblast, making its “elite” status and effective combat power even after reconstitution with mobilized reservists and/or conscripts questionable.
It remains extraordinarily unlikely that Russian forces would be able to take Kyiv even if Russian forces again attack from Belarus again. Russian forces are extremely unlikely to be more successful at attacking northern Ukraine in the winter of 2023 than they were in February 2022. Russia’s conventional forces are badly degraded and lack the combat power that they had when Russia attempted (and failed) its full-throated effort to capture Kyiv in February 2022. Russian forces have been unable to secure their gains across Ukraine and have lost over 70,000 square km of occupied territory since abandoning Kyiv. Russian forces in Bakhmut currently advance no more than 100-200 meters a day after concentrating their main efforts there. Russia has not established air superiority let alone air supremacy in Ukraine and has largely exhausted its precision-guided munitions arsenal. Ukrainian forces, for their part, have prepared significant defenses in northern Ukraine and are better prepared to defend now than they were in February 2022. The terrain near the Belarusian-Ukrainian border is not conducive to maneuver warfare and possible invasion routes from Belarus to Kyiv run through defensible chokepoints in the Chernobyl exclusion zone that Ukrainian forces now have experience defending.
- Russia may be setting conditions to conduct a new offensive against Ukraine—possibly against Kyiv—in winter 2023. Such an attack is extraordinarily unlikely to succeed. A Russian attack from Belarus is not imminent at this time.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin’s objectives in Ukraine have not changed.
- Putin is using two simultaneous military efforts to pursue his objective of conquering Ukraine and securing major concessions.
- Putin is likely setting conditions for a renewed offensive before spring of 2023 to coerce Ukraine into offering concessions.
- Russian forces may be setting conditions to attack from Belarusian territory, although ISW continues to assess that the Belarusian military will not join the fighting in Ukraine.
- Ukrainian forces reportedly continued counteroffensive operations in the direction of Kreminna and Svatove.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations in the Bakhmut and Avdiivka areas.
- Russian forces continued defensive operations south of the Dnipro River in southern Ukraine.
- The Russian officer corps continues to suffer heavy losses in Ukraine.
- Ukrainian partisans conducted a sabotage attack on a power transformer substation in Berdyansk, Zaporizhia Oblast.