February 5, 2023

Putin is avoiding risk-taking that could threaten international escalation

Institute for the Study of War

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.

Key inflections in ongoing military operations on February 5

  • Current Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov (pending a potential reshuffle) stated that Ukrainian officials expect possible Russian offensive operations ahead of the anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, but noted that there are no Russian strike groups near Kharkiv City.
  • German Chancellor Olaf Scholz stated that Ukraine is not using Western-provided weapons to strike Russian territory.
  • US officials stated that Russia and Iran plan to build a factory in Russia to manufacture up to 6,000 drones for combat in Ukraine. A Russian source claimed that Russian arms company Lobaev Arms is beginning to develop and produce these drones.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations in the Kreminna area, and Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian forces launched renewed offensive operations northwest of Svatove in recent days.
  • Russian forces continued to conduct ground attacks around Bakhmut. Russian milbloggers are conflicted on whether Ukrainian forces are withdrawing from Bakhmut, as Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin denied claims of a Ukrainian withdrawal. ISW continues to assess that Russian forces are likely unable to force an imminent Ukrainian withdrawal from Bakhmut.
  • Russian sources continued to claim that Ukrainian forces are transferring reserves in the Vuhledar direction.
  • Geolocated satellite footage shows that Russian forces built a fortified base on the Arabat Spit in northeastern Crimea between October 18, 2022, and January 21, 2023.
  • The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces continue to import medical personnel from Russia to treat wounded military personnel in occupied Luhansk Oblast, supporting ISW’s assessment that Russian forces are preparing for a renewed offensive in Luhansk Oblast.
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