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 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