December 9, 2023

Institute for the Study of War:  Russian forces continue offensive operations in Ukraine despite winter weather

Institute for the Study of War

Russian forces have likely committed to offensive operations in multiple sectors of the front during a period of the most challenging weather of the fall-winter season in an effort to seize and retain the initiative prior to the Russian presidential elections in March 2024. Russian forces are currently pursuing offensive efforts along much of the frontline in Ukraine, particularly along the Kharkiv-Luhansk Oblast border, near Bakhmut, and towards Avdiivka as Ukrainian military officials have repeatedly noted, and Russian forces are also conducting continuous ground attacks in western Zaporizhia Oblast. The current pace of fighting across the entire frontline in Ukraine is generally consistent with ISW’s standing assessment that Russian forces have been trying to regain the theater-level initiative since at least mid-November 2023. Recent Ukrainian military official statements further suggest that Russian forces have succeeded in seizing the initiative along the Kharkiv-Luhansk Oblast border, near Bakhmut, and along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City axis, while Ukrainian forces maintain the initiative in key areas of southern Ukraine, as evidenced by continued Ukrainian counterattacks in western Zaporizhia Oblast and the sustained, larger-than-usual Ukrainian presence in east bank Kherson Oblast.

It is noteworthy that Russian forces have made a concerted effort to regain the theater-wide initiative and initiate offensive operations during the period of the most difficult weather conditions for mechanized offensive operations in the fall, supporting ISW’s long-standing assessment that poor weather conditions may slow but do not stop combat along the frontline. Russian forces likely chose to attempt to regain the initiative during such poor weather because Ukrainian forces had largely deprived Russian forces of the ability to regain the initiative and conduct offensives during the summer period of weather much more conducive to military operations. Russian concern over the impending Ukrainian counteroffensive even preceding the start of the Ukrainian counteroffensive in early June 2023 kept Russian forces in southern Ukraine in the first half of 2023 on the defensive, depriving them of the ability to pursue offensive opportunities in the south in that period.

Key Takeaways:

  • Russian forces have likely committed to offensive operations in multiple sectors of the front during a period of the most challenging weather of the fall-winter season in an effort to seize and retain the initiative prior to the Russian presidential elections in March 2024.
  • Ukrainian forces, by contrast, appear to be using this period of challenging weather and ongoing Russian offensive operations to establish and consolidate defensive positions along the parts of the frontline where they have not been conducting counteroffensive operations, thereby conserving manpower and resources for future offensive efforts.
  • The establishment of local defensive positions in areas Kyiv is not prioritizing for current or imminent counteroffensive operations is a prudent step and not an indication that Ukraine has abandoned all plans for future counteroffensives.
  • The Kremlin-backed United Russia party is spearheading Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nomination as an independent candidate in the 2024 Russian presidential election, and Putin’s re-election campaign initiatives group includes people with a variety of backgrounds and constituencies to create the image of widespread support for Putin’s presidency.
  • Multiple Russian political opposition figures have reportedly developed a common campaign strategy for the upcoming presidential campaign cycle aimed at compelling Putin to address topics he seeks to avoid and revealing the breadth of Russian opposition against Putin.
  • Select Russian milbloggers accused the Armenian government of promoting Russophobic policies that inspire violence against Russian media figures in Armenia on December 9. 
  • The European Union (EU) will allow member states to restrict Russian gas imports in an effort to restrain Russian petroleum revenues.
  • A prominent Russian milblogger claimed that Russian decoy missiles failed to overwhelm Ukrainian air defenses during December 8 missile strikes against Kyiv City.
  • Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov highlighted Ukrainian anti-corruption efforts and preparations for the arrival of F-16 fighter jets in the near future on December 9.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, west and southwest of Donetsk City, in the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast and advanced near Kreminna.
  • Relatives of mobilized Russian military personnel continued to appeal to the Russian government for the return of their relatives from the war in Ukraine.
  • The Russian Ministry of Culture continues to orchestrate efforts to Russify Ukrainian children and facilitate their deportation to Russia.

(for full report:  https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-december-9-2023 )

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