December 15, 2023

Institute for the Study of War: Russia plans to expand control of Ukraine territory in 2024

Institute for the Study of War

German outlet BILD stated on December 14 that unspecified intelligence findings and sources indicate that Russia plans to occupy Ukrainian territory beyond the four (illegally) annexed Ukrainian oblasts throughout 2024-2026. BILD stated that Russia plans to capture the entirety of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and up to the Oskil River in Kharkiv Oblast by the end of 2024. These reported goals are in line with ongoing localized Russian offensive operations in Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv oblasts. Russia also reportedly plans to take large parts of Zaporizhia, Dnipropetrovsk, and Kharkiv oblasts, including Kharkiv City if possible, in 2025 and 2026. BILD reported that an insider source stated that Russia plans to occupy large parts of eastern Ukraine located east of the Dnipro River within the next 36 months. Russia is reportedly planning to hold the current front line in Kherson Oblast along the Dnipro River and is only concerned about preventing Ukrainian forces in southern Ukraine from advancing towards occupied Crimea. BILD stated that Russia’s plans are based on mobilizing Russia’s defense industrial base (DIB), suffering annual casualties of around 100,000 military personnel in attritional offensive operations, and benefiting from the possible election of a US president in 2024 who dramatically reduces or stops military support to Ukraine. BILD reported that a source familiar with the intelligence findings stated that the Kremlin plans to rely on “sham negotiations” while continuing to conduct offensive operations similar to the way in which Russia negotiated the Second Minsk agreement in 2015 while the Russian military continued to occupy additional Ukrainian settlements. BILD previously published largely accurate intelligence findings about Russia’s plans for its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in December 2021 which assessed that Russia would attack Ukraine from the south from Crimea, from Russian-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine, and from the north in late January or early February 2022, although the Russian invasion as executed did not perfectly align with BILD’s reporting.

ISW cannot independently authenticate BILD’s reporting, but Russia’s reported plans for the war in Ukraine through 2026 are in line with continued Russian preparations for a prolonged war effort. The Russian military command is pursuing long-term restructuring and expansion efforts to form strategic reserves, and Russia has been gradually mobilizing its DIB to sustain a long war. Russia’s reported medium to long-term plans to occupy territory beyond the four (illegally) annexed territories are also plausible considering that Russian officials, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, have reverted to expansionist rhetoric recently, and Russian forces continue offensive operations to expand their positions in Kharkiv Oblast. Russian officials have issued statements about Russia’s intention to occupy and annex additional Ukrainian territory beyond the current front lines and the four (illegally) annexed territories.“ ISW recently assessed that the sudden collapse of Western aid would likely lead sooner or later to the collapse of Ukraine’s ability to hold off the Russian military, and Russian forces could ultimately push all the way to the western Ukrainian border in such a scenario.

Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Lieutenant General Kyrylo Budanov stated in an interview published on December 14 that Russia currently has no intention of changing its plans for the war in Ukraine in 2025, however. Budanov stated that Russia may develop a new plan if nothing changes on the front line by the end of 2024.

Key Takeaways:

  • German outlet BILD stated on December 14 that unspecified intelligence findings and sources indicate that Russia plans to occupy Ukrainian territory beyond the four (illegally) annexed Ukrainian oblasts throughout 2024-2026.
  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov threateningly urged Ukraine to negotiate with Russia sooner rather than later in framing consistent with the ISW assessment that Russia intends to achieve its maximalist objectives in Ukraine through military means.
  • Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba published an op-ed entitled “There is a Path to Victory in Ukraine” on December 15, wherein he argues that Ukrainian military objectives remain feasible despite increasingly pessimistic discussions in the West.
  • Russian forces conducted a series of missile and drone strikes against Ukraine on the night of December 14 to 15.
  • Finnish authorities closed Finland’s border checkpoints with Russia again on December 15 amid continued Russian hybrid warfare efforts to orchestrate an artificial migrant crisis.
  • Germany announced new military and humanitarian aid packages to Ukraine on December 14.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations near Kupyansk, northeast and near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, west and southwest of Donetsk City, in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast and made confirmed advances in several areas.
  • Kremlin newswire TASS reported on December 14 that “Grom” special units (elite anti-drug special units of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs [MVD]) will fully transition to being subordinated to Rosgvardia in early 2024.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin highlighted Russia’s intention to build high-speed railways in occupied Ukraine, likely hours after Ukrainian partisans damaged a key railway line in occupied Zaporizhia Oblast.
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