January 1, 2024

Institute for the Study of War:  Russia steps up drone attacks on Ukraine as its ground forces sustain heavy losses

Institute for the Study of War

Russian President Vladimir Putin used his annual New Year’s address on December 31 to concretize Russian ideological priorities for 2024, notably omitting any mentions of the war in Ukraine and instead focusing on setting ideological conditions for the upcoming year. In stark contrast to last year’s New Year’s address, wherein Putin addressed the nation at the headquarters of the Southern Military District surrounded by uniformed military personnel and talked explicitly about Russia’s goals in Ukraine, Putin’s 2023 address shows him standing alone against the backdrop of the Kremlin, without a single mention of the “special military operation.”[1] Putin instead opted to very briefly thank Russian military personnel for fighting for “truth and justice,” and otherwise focused on emphasizing Russian national unity.[2] Putin also stated that 2024 will be the “Year of the Family,” emphasizing that the Russian family is the backbone of “the multinational people of Russia,” and that Russia is “one big country, one big family.”

Putin has in recent weeks frequently discussed Russia’s continued maximalist intentions for the war in Ukraine, and Putin likely sought to set more domestically-oriented ideological conditions during his New Year’s speech.[3] Putin’s invocation of 2024 as the “Year of the Family,” as well as his emphasis on Russian “multinationalism,” further serve to clearly delineate the Kremlin’s ideological line going into 2024, orienting domestic policy around the preservation of traditional Russian family values and the protection of Russian multinationalism, which both fit into Putin’s wider ideology of a Russian World (Russkiy Mir) inclusive of groups within and beyond Russia.[4] ISW has recently assessed that Putin is trying to re-establish the conception of the Russian World as the backbone of Russian domestic and foreign policy, and the 2023 New Year’s address identifies Russian families and Russian multinationalism as pillars of this concretized Russian World.[5] The Kremlin’s conceptions of the Russian World will undoubtedly impact Russian administrative, bureaucratic, and sociocultural priorities in occupied Ukraine, as well as military goals on the battlefield in the year to come.

Russian forces conducted another series of missile and drone strikes against Ukraine on the night of December 29 to 30 and on December 31, underscoring a notable recent increase in the percentage of Russian Shahed-136/131 drones penetrating or avoiding Ukrainian air defenses. The Ukrainian Air Force reported that Russian forces struck Kharkiv City with six S-300 missiles and launched 49 Shahed drones primarily at Ukrainian frontline positions as well as civilian, military, and infrastructure facilities in Kharkiv, Kherson, Mykolaiv, and Zaporizhia oblasts on the night of December 30 to 31.[6] Ukrainian military sources reported that Russian forces launched 12 missiles at targets in Ukraine on December 31, an unspecified number of which struck civilian infrastructure in Kharkiv and Donetsk oblasts.[7] The Ukrainian Air Force reported that Ukrainian forces shot down 21 of the Shahed drones, a notably lower rate of interceptions for Ukrainian air defenses than ISW has previously observed.[8] Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Yuriy Ihnat noted that Russian strikes on Ukrainian frontline positions with Shahed drones are “peculiar,” and it is possible that the lower interception rate is a result of Russian forces targeting frontline areas that have less air defense coverage or coverage less optimized for intercepting drones than population centers in the rear.[9] Ukrainian air defenses similarly had a lower-than-usual interception rate when Ukrainian forces shot down five out of 10 Shahed drones on December 30 and 27 out of 36 Shahed drones on December 29.[10] Russian milbloggers claimed on December 29 that Russian forces launched Shaheds that are harder to detect because they are painted black and partially absorb radio signals.[11] Ihnat previously stated on November 25 that Russian forces are beginning to use black paint and carbon fiber materiel on Shahed drones to complicate the work of Ukrainian air defense systems.[12] It is unclear if adaptations to the Shahed drones are decreasing the Ukrainians’ ability to intercept the drones or if the apparent trend in the decreased Ukrainian interception rate will continue.

Russian forces, particularly Russian airborne (VDV) Forces, are reportedly suffering heavy losses in simultaneous infantry-heavy Russian offensive operations on multiple fronts. A Russian milblogger claimed on December 31 that units of the Russian VDV forces are suffering heavy losses and are unable to rest and recover.[13] The milblogger claimed that experienced and trained VDV contract servicemen (kontraktniki) form a lower proportion of the VDV’s personnel, and that the VDV has suffered high losses amongst experienced members of the command cadre that had previously made up the core of the VDV forces. Ukrainian military observer Kostyantyn Mashovets assessed on December 31 that elements of the newly formed 104th VDV Division, particularly its 328th and 337th VDV Regiments, will have to withdraw from the Krynky area in the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast for rest and replenishment after a month of almost continuous fighting in the area.[14] The United Kingdom Ministry of Defense (UK MoD) assessed on December 14 that elements of the 104th VDV Division likely suffered exceptionally heavy losses near Krynky due to inadequate air and artillery support and the inexperience of many of its personnel.[15] VDV Commander Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky implied on December 23 that the Russian military command is deploying new VDV officers and troops directly from graduation from initial training to the frontlines without having them complete pre-combat training.[16] Teplinsky stated that some recent graduates of the Ryazan Higher Airborne Command School will join the 104th Division in the Kherson direction.[17]

The high casualty rate, particularly among units such as the VDV that were considered elite before 2022, is largely a reflection of the fact that the Russian military command has chosen to pursue simultaneous offensive operations along the entire frontline, often prioritizing marginal gains at the cost of disproportionate losses. The UK MoD stated on December 30 that “the average daily number of Russian casualties in Ukraine has risen by almost 300 during the course of 2023” and that if the current casualty rate continues Russian forces will have lost over half a million personnel total in Ukraine by the end of 2024.[18] A declassified US intelligence assessment reportedly shared with Congress on December 12 stated that Russian forces have lost 315,000 personnel since the beginning of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.[19] The current tempo and style of Russian offensives in Ukraine are reflective of these estimated casualty rates. Russian forces have conducted multiple waves of mass mechanized assaults and infantry-led assaults to capture Avdiivka, Donetsk Oblast, since October 10 despite heavy personnel losses, for example, and have rushed untrained VDV elements to defend against Ukrainian ground operations in the east bank of Kherson Oblast, where they have also taken heavy losses.[20] The Russian military leadership has undertaken extensive force generation measures as part of efforts to offset manpower losses, however, including partial mobilization since September 2022 and ongoing crypto-mobilization efforts.[21] The current casualty rate should not be taken as permanent—the Russian military command could change the tempo and pace of offensive operations or take time to reconstitute its forces for more effective future offensive operations. Ukraine’s Western partners must guard against complacency when assessing Russian losses and operational failures in Ukraine, as ISW has previously assessed.[22]

A prominent Kremlin-affiliated Russian milblogger argued that ethnic Russians do not have enough domestic power in Russia while reiterating a common Russian information operation aimed at erasing Ukrainian identity. The milblogger claimed on December 31 that the illegal Russian annexation of occupied Luhansk Oblast as the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR), occupied Donetsk Oblast as the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), and occupied Crimea as the Republic of Crimea created three new republics that are specifically for “ethnic Russians.”[23] The milblogger argued that ethnic Russians do not have enough domestic power because there was not a republic dedicated to ethnic Russians prior to Russia‘s illegal annexation of the LNR, DNR and Crimea. The milblogger claimed that Russia has many republics dedicated to providing “statehood” to ethnic minorities such as the republics of Tatarstan, Karelia, and Dagestan.[24] The milblogger claimed that Russians instead have “territories,” likely referring to other designations for Russian federal subjects such as krais and oblasts. Russian republics, generally named after the ethnic minority inhabiting the area, are nominally allowed under Russian law to exercise more administrative autonomy than other Russian federal subjects.[25] The milblogger argued that Russia needs more “ethnic Russian” republics to promote the interests of ethnic Russians, reflecting the Russian pro-war ultranationalist community’s wider objective to eliminate non-Russian culture from Russian society. The milblogger’s argument rests on the long-running Russian information operation denying the existence of Ukrainian identity by falsely claiming that Ukrainians are ethnic Russians.[26] The milblogger’s argument also attributes coherence to DNR and LNR governance where ISW has consistently observed administrative disorganization and ineptitude.[27]

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin used his annual New Year’s address on December 31 to concretize Russian ideological priorities for 2024, notably omitting any mentions of the war in Ukraine and instead focusing on setting ideological conditions for the upcoming year.
  • Russian forces conducted another series of missile and drone strikes against Ukraine on the night of December 29 to 30 and on December 31, underscoring a notable recent increase in the percentage of Russian Shahed-136/131 drones penetrating or avoiding Ukrainian air defenses.
  • Russian forces, particularly Russian airborne (VDV) Forces, are reportedly suffering heavy losses in simultaneous infantry-heavy Russian offensive operations on multiple fronts.
  • A prominent Kremlin-affiliated Russian milblogger argued that ethnic Russians do not have enough domestic power in Russia while reiterating a common Russian information operation aimed at erasing Ukrainian identity.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces conducted positional engagements along the entire line of conduct, but there were no confirmed map changes on December 31.
  • Russian Presidential Administration First Deputy Head Sergei Kiriyenko is spearheading efforts to consolidate sociocultural control of occupied areas of Ukraine via the information space.
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