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Institute for the Study of War: Russian offensive in Zaporizhzhia fails

January 23, 2023

Ukrainian intelligence assessed that Russian forces are preparing for an offensive effort in the spring or early summer of 2023, partially confirming ISW’s standing assessment that Russian troops may undertake a decisive action in the coming months. Ukrainian Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) representative Vadym Skibitsky stated on January 20 that the spring and early summer of 2023 will be decisive in the war and confirmed that the GUR has observed indicators that Russian troops are regrouping in preparation for a “big offensive” in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts.[1] Skibitsky also reiterated that Russian forces are unlikely to launch an attack from Belarus or in southern Ukraine.[2] ISW has previously assessed that Russian forces may be preparing for a decisive effort (of either offensive or defensive nature) in Luhansk Oblast and observed a redeployment of conventional forces such as Airborne (VDV) elements to the Svatove-Kreminna axis after the Russian withdrawal from Kherson Oblast.[3] ISW also maintains that it is highly unlikely that Russian forces are planning to relaunch a new offensive on northern Ukraine from the direction of Belarus.[4] Skibitsky’s assessments largely support ISW’s running forecasts of Russian intentions in the first half of 2023 and underscore the continued need for Western partner support to ensure that Ukraine does not lose the initiative to a renewed Russian offensive operation.

The Wagner Group’s outsized reliance on recruitment from penal colonies appears to be having increasing ramifications on Wagner’s combat capability. Head of the independent Russian human rights organization “Rus Sidyashchaya” (Russia Behind Bars) Olga Romanova claimed on January 23 that out of the assessed 50,000 prisoners that Wagner has recruited, only 10,000 are fighting on frontlines in Ukraine due to high casualty, surrender, and desertion rates.[5] ISW cannot independently confirm these figures, but they are very plausible considering Wagner’s model of using convicts as cannon fodder in highly attritional offensive operations.[6] The model Wagner has reportedly been using of retaining its highly trained long-serving mercenaries as leadership and Special Forces–type elements on top of a mass of untrained convicts also lends itself to high combat losses, surrenders, and desertions. The Wagner Group aim of reducing casualties among its non-convict mercenaries likely undermines its ability to retain and use effectively its large mass of convicts at scale and over time. ISW has previously reported on instances of relatives of Wagner group fighters receiving empty coffins after being told their loves ones died in Ukraine, suggesting that Wagner lacks the basic administrative and bureaucratic infrastructure to track and present its own losses, adding further credibility to the “Rus Sidyashchaya” estimate.[7]

Russia continues to deepen military and economic relations with Iran in an effort to engage in mutually beneficial sanctions evasion. NOTE: A version of this item appeared in the Critical Threats Project (CTP)’s Iran Crisis Update.[8] Russian Duma Chairman Vyacheslav Volodin met with Iranian Parliamentary Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran on January 23 to expand bilateral cooperation efforts.[9] Ghalibaf noted that Moscow and Tehran should strive to strengthen ties in the banking, energy, and commodity-trading sectors in the face of American sanctions, which Volodin credited for bringing the two countries closer together.[10] Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) sources additionally speculated on further military cooperation efforts between Tehran and Moscow. IRGC-affiliated outlet Tasnim News published an editorial arguing that a Russo-Iranian joint production deal could allow Iran to receive Russian Mi-28 and Ka-52 attack helicopters.[11] Both Tehran and Moscow are likely looking to these agreements to mitigate the pressure of sanctions levied against them by the US.

Key Takeaways

  • Ukrainian intelligence assessed that Russian forces are preparing for an offensive effort in the spring or early summer of 2023, partially confirming ISW’s standing assessment that Russian troops may undertake a decisive action in the coming months.

  • The Wagner Group’s outsized reliance on recruitment from penal colonies appears to be having increasing ramifications on Wagner’s combat capability.

  • Russia continues to deepen military and economic relations with Iran in an effort to engage in mutually beneficial sanctions evasion.

  • Russian forces continued limited counterattacks to regain lost positions along the Svatove-Kreminna line.

  • Ukrainian forces struck Russian concentration areas in occupied Luhansk Oblast.

  • Russian forces continued ground attacks around Bakhmut and on the western outskirts of Donetsk City.

  • Russian forces likely conducted a failed offensive operation in Zaporizhia Oblast in the last 72 hours.

  • Russian forces have not made any confirmed territorial gains in Zaporizhia Oblast despite one Russian occupation official’s continued claims. The occupation official may be pushing a narrative of Russian tactical successes in Zaporizhia Oblast to generate positive narratives to distract Russians from the lack of promised progress in Bakhmut.

  • The Kremlin’s efforts to professionalize the Russian Armed Forces are continuing to generate criticism among supporters of new Russian parallel military structures.

  • Russian officials and occupation authorities continue efforts to integrate occupied territories into Russian social, administrative, and political systems and crack down on partisan dissent in occupied areas.

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