Russian forces are continuing to shape and consolidate their force composition in eastern Ukraine to bolster defenses against ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensives near the Kharkiv-Luhansk Oblast border and support limited offensive efforts in Donetsk Oblast. An independent Ukrainian analytical organization, the Center for Defense Strategies, noted on December 12 that the Russians are centralizing and systematizing the command and control of Western Military District (WMD) troops in the Kharkiv-Luhansk direction. The Center noted that the 20th Combined Arms Army of the WMD is currently operating in this area in three general groupings: elements of the 144th Motorized Rifle Division near Svatove; elements of the 3rd Motorized Rifle Division on the Kreminna-Rubizhne line; and elements of the 18th Motorized Rifle Division of the 11th Army Corps in northwestern Luhansk Oblast near Troitske. The Center also reported that elements of the 1st and 2nd Army Corps (troops of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, respectively), 76th Air Assault Division and 106th Airborne Division, and up to three BARS (Combat Reserve) detachments, amounting up to 15 to 17 battalions, are concentrated in this general area. These troop concentrations are likely significantly degraded and understrength.
ISW has previously observed WMD elements operating throughout Kharkiv Oblast prior to the sweeping Ukrainian counteroffensives in September that ultimately drove Russian troops back to the current line along the Kharkiv-Luhansk Oblast border. Russian and Ukrainian reporting has additionally suggested that there is a high concentration of mobilized personnel operating on this axis, likely in order to fill gaps in WMD units that have been degraded over the course of ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensives in northeastern Ukraine. BARS-13 and BARS-16 detachments have been particularly active along the Svatove-Kreminna line. Elements of the Central Military District (CMD) have previously been observed in the Severodonetsk-Lysychansk area. The observation that elements of the Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) are operating in Luhansk Oblast suggests that they redeployed away from the west (right) bank of Kherson Oblast, where ISW previously reported they were operating prior to the massive Russian withdrawal from the right bank. The current force composition of the Russian contingent in eastern Kherson is unclear. Elements of the Russian Southern Military District (SMD) likely maintain a presence in occupied Kherson and Zaporizhia Oblasts.
Wagner Group fighters, supported by elements of the 1st and 2nd Army Corps, are largely responsible for driving offensive operations in Donetsk Oblast, particularly around Bakhmut and the western outskirts of Donetsk City. ISW has previously reported the role of Wagner Group forces in securing minor gains around Bakhmut over the last few months. Troops of the 6th Regiment of the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) 2nd Army Corps have been active northeast of Bakhmut in the Soledar area. ISW has additionally observed the prevalence of groupings of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) 1st Army Corps in the Donetsk City–Avdiivka area, particularly the “Sparta” and “Somalia” battalions, which have claimed gains along the western outskirts of Donetsk City in areas such as Pisky, Vodiane, and Marinka. DNR elements have notably been active in this area since 2014. Russian sources reported that DNR troops, elements of the Russian Eastern Military District (EMD), and the 155th Naval Infantry Brigade and 40th Separate Naval Infantry Brigade of the Pacific Fleet were responsible for costly offensive operations southwest of Donetsk City in the Vuhledar-Pavlivka area in November.
The cost of the Russian war in Ukraine will likely continue to undermine Russian President Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical campaigns worldwide. The UK Ministry of Defense (MoD) reported on December 11 that Putin signed a law allocating over nine trillion rubles (approximately $143 billion) for defense, security, and law enforcement for the 2023 budget. That amount is about 8 percent of Russia’s 2021 gross domestic product according to the World Bank. The UK MoD assessed that Russia’s defense spending significantly increased and will represent over 30% of Russia’s entire 2023 budget. Putin is thus continuing to drain his budget into his war in Ukraine and may need to defund other international or domestic campaigns in the process. ISW has long assessed that Russian forces have been moving equipment and personnel from other conflict zones such as Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh and may deprioritize other combat and soft-power engagements in favor of sustaining a protracted war in Ukraine.
Putin is seemingly still unwilling to sacrifice his geopolitical initiatives in the short-term, however, and risks facing a financial predicament in which he will not be able to balance maximalist goals in Ukraine with his global power projection campaigns. Putin, for example, has continued attempts to reestablish Russia’s position in Central Asia by unsuccessfully proposing to create a trilateral union among Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan in late November and during a meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on December 9. Putin’s continued spending on regional soft-power initiatives has already upset a few prominent pro-war milbloggers, who had criticized the Kremlin for reportedly allocating almost six billion rubles (about $95.5 million) for the development of Russian-language schools in Tajikistan while failing to provide for Russian forces on the battlefield. The milbloggers added that the Kremlin is not effectively leveraging its soft power in Tajikistan, which further brings the necessity of such spending into question.
The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) officially denied rumors that Russian Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov has been or soon will be replaced, although it stopped short of offering the kind of credible support for this denial that it has provided that Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu is still on the job. A prominent Russian media aggregator circulated a claim on December 11 that Gerasimov may soon be replaced. The claim reportedly originated with unidentified Russian milbloggers, and some Russian sources either amplified the claim or cautioned their audiences to not engage with such rumors. The Russian MoD directly denied Gerasimov’s resignation or replacement, called the claims a Ukrainian “fake,” and provided links to images that supposedly show Gerasimov carrying out official duties over the last few weeks. The Russian MoD has previously displayed similar sensitivity to reports of Gerasimov either resigning or being replaced and directly responded to refute such claims, as ISW reported in July. This concerted effort to prove Gerasimov is still functioning as Chief of the General Staff suggests that Russian MoD is attempting to present Russian military leadership as present and engaged in Russian military affairs and to counteract reports of massive disruptions and incoherencies in Russian command structure due to widespread failures in Ukraine. Despite this apparent interest in maintaining Gerasimov’s reputation, the Russian MoD has failed to provide video evidence of his activities, which it has consistently done with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and should be able to do easily for the chief of the general staff.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov stated that Ukraine intends to continue counteroffensives in winter 2022–2023 after the hard freeze enables maneuver warfare, supporting an ISW assessment. Reznikov stated on December 11 that Ukraine will resume counteroffensives after the “ground is firmer” during the winter when responding to a question about US Director for National Intelligence (DNI) Avril Haines’s forecast that Ukraine is likely to conduct counteroffensives in the spring rather than the winter. Reznikov previously stated on December 6 that Ukraine needs artillery ammunition, armored vehicles, tanks, and combat aircraft to support Ukrainian counteroffensives.
Senior US government officials may be correcting their assessments about Ukraine’s ability and intent to conduct counteroffensive operations this winter. Voice of America National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin reported that an unnamed senior US military official stated that, “We know the Ukrainians can fight and fight well under these [winter] conditions” on December 12. DNI Haines previously mistakenly identified the optimal window of opportunity for Ukraine to conduct more counteroffensives as the spring rather than winter on December 3. ISW previously assessed that Ukraine likely seeks to conduct successive operations through the winter of 2022–2023.
The UK MoD assessed that Russia still likely aims to retain control over all its occupied Ukrainian territory, supporting ISW’s recent assessment that the Kremlin likely maintains its maximalist objectives in Ukraine. The UK MoD assessed that Russian military leadership still intends to make additional advances within Donetsk Oblast but that current Russian military strategy is highly unlikely to allow Moscow to accomplish that goal. ISW previously assessed that Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov’s December 8 statements defining Russian territorial goals as controlling all of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhia oblasts remain maximalist given his restatement of Putin’s February 24 goals of “demilitarization” and “denazification” of Ukraine, which would inhibit Ukraine’s ability to resist future Russian military or subversion campaigns.
- Russian forces are continuing to shape and consolidate their force composition in eastern Ukraine to bolster defenses against ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensives near the Kharkiv-Luhansk Oblast border and support limited offensive efforts in Donetsk Oblast.
- The cost of the Russian war in Ukraine will likely continue to undermine Russian President Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical campaigns worldwide.
- The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) officially denied rumors that Russian Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov has been or soon will be replaced, although it stopped short of offering the kind of credible support for this denial that it has provided that Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu is still on the job.
- Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov stated that Ukraine intends to continue counteroffensives in winter 2022–2023 after the hard freeze enables maneuver warfare, supporting an ISW assessment.
- Senior US government officials may be correcting their assessments about Ukraine’s ability and intent to conduct counteroffensive operations this winter.
- Russian forces continued limited ground attacks near Svatove and Kreminna as Ukrainian forces struck rear areas in Luhansk Oblast.
- Russian forces continued ground attacks in the Bakhmut and Avdiivka–Donetsk City areas and conducted defensive operations southwest of Donetsk City.
- Ukrainian forces continued to target Russian military assets and logistics hubs along critical ground lines of communication (GLOCs) in southern Ukraine.
- Russian forces are fortifying the northern beaches of Crimea along the Black Sea coast.
- Russian forces may lack sufficient infrastructure to support their troops in Crimea.