May 24, 2024

Institute for the Study of War: Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 24, 2024

Institute for the Study of War

Riley Bailey, Grace Mappes, Christina Harward, Angelica Evans, and Frederick W. Kagan

May 24, 2024, 8:45pm ET

Western media continues to report that Russian President Vladimir Putin is interested in a negotiated ceasefire in Ukraine, although Kremlin rhetoric and Russian military actions illustrate that Putin remains uninterested in meaningful negotiations and any settlement that would prevent him from pursuing the destruction of an independent Ukrainian state. Reuters reported on May 24 that four Russian sources who currently work or have worked with Putin stated that Putin is ready to negotiate a ceasefire that recognizes the current frontlines and that Putin is prepared to present the current amount of occupied Ukrainian territory as a Russian military victory to the Russian public.[1] Western media reported similar interest from Putin in a negotiated ceasefire or settlement based on statements from unspecified Russian sources with some level of alleged connection to Putin or the Kremlin in December 2023 and January and February 2024.[2] Western media has cited limited unspecified US and international officials as confirming that Putin has expressed interest in a ceasefire, although other Western media has reported that US sources have denied that there has been any official Russian outreach to the US on the matter.[3]

The Kremlin routinely feigns interest in meaningful negotiations as part of a longstanding information operation that aims to persuade the West to make concessions on Ukrainian territorial integrity and sovereignty, and it is unclear if the unspecified Russian sources talking to Western media are advancing these efforts or accurately portraying Putin’s interests and viewpoints.[4] ISW cannot determine the veracity of the Russian sources’ claims about Putin’s intentions, and these private anonymous statements contrast sharply with Russian official public rhetoric and action. Putin and the Kremlin have notably intensified their expansionist rhetoric about Ukraine since December 2023 and have increasingly indicated that Russia intends to conquer more territory in Ukraine and is committed to destroying Ukrainian statehood and identity completely.[5] Russian forces have conducted offensive operations in recent months that aim to make operationally significant advances and collapse the frontline, have opened a new front in Kharkiv Oblast (which Russia has not claimed through illegal annexation), and have sought to cause long-term damage to Ukrainian warfighting capabilities and economic potential in regular large-scale missile and drone strikes.[6] These military operations suggest that the Kremlin is more interested in achieving its long-term goal of maximalist victory in Ukraine than in any settlement that would immediately freeze the frontline where it is currently located. 

Russian sources that have spoken to Western media have also offered mutually contradictory characterizations of Putin’s stance on negotiations. Reuters reported that a Russian source stated that Putin aims to take as much territory as possible in order to compel Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to negotiate, but another Russian source assessed that Putin is unwilling to negotiate with Zelensky.[7] Russian sources also told Reuters that Putin believes that the West will not give Ukraine enough weapons but understands that making any “dramatic” Russian advances would require another Russian nationwide mobilization.[8] Delays in Western security assistance have severely constrained Ukrainian defensive capabilities in recent months, and if Putin believes that there are limits to Western support for Ukraine, then he would logically conclude that such constraints could reemerge in the medium term and allow Russian forces with their current capabilities to make “dramatic” gains without conducting a wider mobilization of manpower or the Russian economy.[9] A Russian source stated that Putin is concerned that a longer war will generate more dissatisfied veterans with poor job prospects and economic situations that could generate domestic tensions, although this assessment is at odds with Russia’s ongoing chronic labor shortages and the Kremlin’s effort to prepare Russian society for a long war effort.[10] These contradictions cast further doubt on the accuracy with which these Russian sources are reflecting Putin’s actual thinking.

These Russian sources notably highlighted territorial concessions as part of Putin’s alleged envisioned ceasefire but have sparsely addressed the wider strategic objectives of Putin’s war in Ukraine. Reuters reported that its Russian sources stated that Putin views Russia maintaining control over currently occupied Ukrainian territory as a non-negotiable basis for negotiations, and previous Western reporting about Putin’s openness to negotiations has similarly highlighted Russian territorial desires.[11] Bloomberg reported in January that two unspecified sources close to the Kremlin stated that Putin signaled to senior US officials that he may be willing to drop demands for Ukraine’s “neutral status” and even may ultimately abandon his opposition to Ukraine’s NATO accession.[12] Russian demands for Ukrainian “neutrality” and a moratorium on NATO expansion have always been and continue to be one of Putin’s central justifications for his invasion of Ukraine and any hypothetical concession on these demands would represent a major strategic and rhetorical retreat on Putin’s behalf that Putin is extremely unlikely to be considering at this time.[13] Putin also launched his invasion of Ukraine to replace the Ukrainian government with one he determined appropriate and to “demilitarize” the Ukrainian military so that Russia could unilaterally impose its will on Ukraine in the future without facing significant Ukrainian resistance.[14] Russian sources that have talked about a ceasefire to Western media have not mentioned these two goals, which Kremlin officials regularly reiterate.[15] The repeated focus on the recognition of occupied Ukrainian territory as Russian territory does not indicate that Russia would drop these wider strategic objectives, however. A ceasefire that cedes currently occupied territory would concretize the idea that Ukrainian territorial integrity is negotiable, a precedent that the Kremlin would most certainly revisit to push for further territorial concessions and contest the idea of Ukrainian statehood altogether.[16]

A ceasefire does not preclude Russia from resuming its offensive campaign to destroy Ukrainian statehood, and Russia would use any ceasefire to prepare for future offensive operations within Ukraine. Russia’s military intervention in Crimea and the Donbas in 2014 violated numerous Russian international commitments to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, including Russia’s recognition of Ukraine as an independent state in 1991 and the 1994 Budapest Memorandum in which Russia specifically committed not to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty or territorial integrity.[17] There is no reason to assess that the Kremlin will respect any new agreement obliging Russia to not violate Ukrainian sovereignty or territorial integrity. A ceasefire would provide Russia with the opportunity to reconstitute degraded forces, divert manpower to large-scale expansion and reform efforts instead of ongoing fighting in Ukraine, and allow Russia to further mobilize its defense industrial base (DIB) without the constraints of immediate operational requirements in Ukraine.[18] Russia could use a ceasefire to prepare a force more suitable to pursue a subsequent series of offensive operations in pursuit of regime change, demilitarization, and conquest in Ukraine. A ceasefire would provide Ukraine opportunities of its own to address force generation and defense industrial capacity, to be sure, but the Kremlin may not unreasonably expect that a frozen frontline will make support for Ukraine less urgent and salient for the West and allow Russia to outpace Ukraine in preparing for a resumption of hostilities.

Russia is currently preparing for the possibility of a conventional war with NATO, and the Kremlin will likely view anything short of Ukrainian capitulation as an existential threat to Russia’s ability to fight such a war.[19] Russian military leaders planning a war against NATO will have to assume that Ukraine might enter such a war on NATO’s behalf regardless of Ukraine’s membership status.[20] A front with NATO along Russia’s entire western border with Europe presents the Russian military with serious challenges, as ISW has previously assessed, whereas a Ukrainian defeat would give Russia the ability to deploy its forces along Europe’s entire eastern flank from the Black Sea to Finland.[21] Russian victory in Ukraine would not only remove the threat of Ukraine as a potential adversary during a possible conventional war with NATO but would also provide Russia with further resources and people to commit to a large-scale confrontation with NATO. Regardless of how Russian victory would partition Ukraine between Russian annexation and the Kremlin-controlled puppet state that would follow Putin’s desired regime change, Russia would have access to millions more people it could impress into military service and the majority of Ukraine’s resources and industrial capacity. Putin and the Kremlin therefore likely view victory in Ukraine as a prerequisite to being able to fight a war with NATO and any ceasefire or negotiated settlement short of full Ukrainian capitulation as a temporary pause in their effort to destroy an independent Ukrainian state.

The Kremlin will continue to feign interest in negotiations at critical moments in the war to influence Western decision-making on support for Ukraine and to continue efforts to extract preemptive concessions from the West. The Kremlin has repeatedly engaged in a large-scale reflexive control campaign that aims to influence Western decision-making.[22] Reflexive control is a key element in Russia’s hybrid warfare toolkit and relies on shaping an adversary with targeted rhetoric and information operations in such a way that the adversary voluntarily takes actions that are advantageous to Russia.[23] Kremlin officials claimed that Russia was open to negotiations in December 2022, likely to delay the provision of Western tanks and other equipment essential for the continuation of Ukrainian mechanized counteroffensives.[24] Western reporting on Putin’s alleged interest in negotiations in Winter 2023-2024 coincided with prolonged debates in the US about security assistance for Ukraine, and the Kremlin may have feigned interest in a ceasefire at this time to convince Western policymakers to pressure Ukraine to negotiate from a weakened position and agree to what would have very likely been a settlement that heavily favored Russia.[25] The Kremlin may again be feigning interest in negotiations in order to influence the ongoing Western debate about lifting restrictions on Ukraine’s use of Western-provided weapons to strike military targets in Russia and convince Western policymakers that changes in these restrictions may lead to Russian unwillingness to negotiate in the future. The Kremlin may also be feigning interest in negotiations again to preemptively influence any future Western discussions about the provision of the additional aid that Ukrainian forces will need to contest the initiative and launch their own counteroffensive operations in the medium term. ISW continues to assess that the consistent provision of key Western systems will play a crucial role in Ukraine’s ability to contest the theater-wide initiative and conduct future counteroffensive operations.[26] US officials have recently stated that the resumption of US security assistance will help Ukrainian forces withstand Russian assaults throughout the rest of 2024 and that Ukrainian forces will look to conduct counteroffensive operations to recapture territory in 2025.[27]

Putin directly rejected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s legitimacy as president on May 24, the latest in a series of efforts to dismiss Zelensky’s authority to engage in or reject negotiations with Russia and undermine Ukrainians’ trust in Zelensky. Putin stated during a press conference with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk, Belarus on May 24 that Russia is willing to negotiate with Ukraine but that the “legitimacy of the current [Ukrainian] head of state has ended,” referring to a Russian information operation falsely claiming that Zelensky is no longer the legitimate president of Ukraine after his term was set to expire on May 20.[28] Putin claimed that the Ukrainian parliament and constitutional court need to examine the Ukrainian constitution to determine the legality of officials remaining in office past their stated terms, which Putin described as an internal Ukrainian matter (about which he nevertheless chose to opine).[29] Putin’s invocation of the Ukrainian constitution while explicitly denying Zelensky’s legitimacy is odd because the Ukrainian constitution explicitly allows a sitting president to postpone elections and remain in office past the end of his term during times of martial law.[30] Zelensky’s decision to postpone the March 2024 elections is in full accordance with the Ukrainian constitution. While Putin seems to lack an understanding of Ukrainian law, his statements advance a broader Russian information operation that aims to degrade Ukrainians’ trust in Zelensky by portraying him as the sole obstacle to a negotiated peace in Ukraine.

The Kremlin is trying to foment domestic unrest in Ukraine centered around distrust in the Ukrainian government under Zelensky. The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) warned on February 27 that Russia is running an information operation entitled “Maidan 3” that uses multiple rhetorical lines to undermine domestic trust and international support for the Ukrainian government, undermine Zelensky’s legitimacy, sow panic, and incite conflict.[31] GUR Head Lieutenant General Kyrylo Budanov warned on April 27 that “Maidan 3” has “advanced” and aims to disguise pro-Russian actors, ideals, and movements as social tensions and other issues to influence Ukrainian society.[32] The GUR warned that the “Maidan 3” operation will peak in March-May 2024, and GUR Spokesperson Andriy Yusov similarly warned on May 23 that Russia will continue to intensify the “Maidan-3” operation through July 2024.[33] Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported on May 20 that anonymous online accounts called on groups of hundreds of Ukrainian Telegram users to participate in “Maidan-3” demonstrations in Kyiv’s Independence Square on May 21, including some offering payments of 1,000 hryvnia (just under $25) per hour.[34] RFE/RL noted that all these Telegram groups chose the May 21 date to coincide with the end of Zelensky’s first presidential term had Ukraine held elections in March 2024.[35] RFE/RL reported that a similar information operation is occurring on TikTok, both calling on users to demonstrate against Zelensky and spreading propaganda claiming that Zelensky is no longer a legitimate president.[36]

The Kremlin may be setting informational conditions to eventually declare a Kremlin-backed actor as Ukrainian president instead of Zelensky. Putin stated on May 24 that Russia seeks to understand who the “legitimate [Ukrainian] authorities” are before engaging in negotiations, implying that the Kremlin could declare a figure of its choice as “legitimate” at some point in the future.[37] Independent monitoring project Belarusian Hajun reported that the plane of former pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych–who fled Ukraine to Russia during the 2014 EuroMaidan protests against his rule–notably arrived in Minsk on May 24, coinciding with Putin’s and Russian Defense Minister Andrey Belousov’s visit to Minsk for extensive Union State negotiations.[38] It is unclear why Yanukovych would be in Minsk or with whom he met. Western and Ukrainian media have floated Yanukovych as a possible Kremlin-picked replacement for Zelensky had the initial days of the Russian invasion forced Ukraine to capitulate.[39] Yanukovych last visited Minsk in March 2022, and Ukrainian intelligence told Ukrainska Pravda that the trip was for the Kremlin to prepare Yanukovych for a “special operation” to be reinstated as president of Ukraine.[40]

Unnamed Russian government officials and sources within the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and the Kremlin told the independent Russian outlet The Moscow Times that the ongoing effort to remove senior Russian defense officials and uniformed commanding officers will likely continue in the coming weeks and months.[41] The Moscow Times, citing unnamed sources, reported on May 24 that the Russian Federal Security Service’s (FSB) recent arrests of five high-ranking defense officials are likely the first of dozens or hundreds of anticipated arrests. Russian authorities have notably arrested five senior Russian MoD officials and former military commanders since April 24, including Russian Deputy Defense Minister Timur Ivanov, Deputy Defense Minister Lieutenant General Yuri Kuznetsov, former commander of the 58th Combined Arms Army (CAA) Major General Ivan Popov, Deputy Chief of the General Staff and Head of the Main Communications Directorate Lieutenant General Vadim Shamarin, and Head of the Russian MoD’s Department for State Procurement Vladimir Verteletsky.[42] A source told The Moscow Times that the FSB is “mopping up” defense officials associated with former Defense Minister and recently appointed Security Council Secretary Sergei Shoigu and that the FSB could only conduct this type of operation with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approval. The source claimed that “more arrests await us,” and an unnamed acting Russian government official claimed that these arrests could spiral into the largest effort to remove Russian military officials in modern Russian history. The official suggested that Russian authorities will arrest up to hundreds of defense officials of various unspecified ranks this year. Another acting Russian government official claimed that the FSB hopes to install FSB-affiliated officials in the Russian MoD and take control of the MoD’s budget.

A source close to the Kremlin claimed that these arrests indicate that the FSB is “triumphing” over the Russian MoD and that the arrests are part of the FSB’s effort to convince Putin that the Russian MoD is responsible for the failures during the initial weeks of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The Kremlin has undoubtedly debated which department deserves the blame for the Russian military’s initial failures in Ukraine, but it is unclear if Putin remains interested in assigning blame for the initial months of the invasion over two years later.[43] Moreover, the FSB is one of the most logical arms of the Russian government to conduct these arrests as it is tasked with addressing domestic security issues, counterintelligence, economic crimes, and surveillance of the Russian military.[44] While Putin has been known to balance his favor between siloviki (Russian strongmen with political influence) and encourage infighting, it is at least as likely that the FSB’s involvement in the ongoing removal of high-ranking Russian defense officials and military officers is due to its mandated responsibilities as guided by the Kremlin and not as part of a wider FSB conspiracy to gain control of or divert blame to the MoD.[45]

Ukrainian forces conducted a series of successful missile strikes against military targets in Russian-occupied Ukraine on May 23 and 24. Geolocated footage published on May 24 shows that Ukrainian forces struck a Russian S-400 air defense system, destroying four of its missile launchers and its radar station in occupied Obrizne, Donetsk Oblast.[46] Ukrainian and Russian sources stated that Ukrainian forces used ATACMS missiles in the strike.[47] Geolocated footage published on May 23 shows a strike near occupied Alushta, Crimea, and Ukrainian Crimean-based “Atesh” partisan group stated that Ukrainian forces struck a Russian military communications center.[48] “Atesh” stated that the strike likely significantly damaged equipment and possibly destroyed the control center. Crimean occupation administration head Sergei Aksyonov claimed that Ukrainian forces struck an unspecified target in Simferopol and an empty commercial property near Alushta.[49] A Russian milblogger claimed that Ukrainian forces launched up to 16 missiles toward Crimea, including ATACMS, and that some missiles penetrated Russian air defense systems.[50] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian forces destroyed three ATACMS missiles over Crimea and three naval drones in the Black Sea overnight.[51]

Ukrainian forces reportedly conducted a drone strike against a Russian early warning radar system in Krasnodar Krai, Russia on the morning of May 23. Ukrainian and Russian sources posted photos of the aftermath of a Ukrainian drone strike on a Voronezh-DM ground-based early warning radar station on the territory of the Russian 818th Radio Technical Center near Armavir, Krasnodar Krai.[52] The sources noted that Russian forces used the radar to detect intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) at a range of up to 6,000 kilometers.[53] Radio Svoboda published satellite imagery from shortly after the strike showing damage to the radar system.[54]

The Ukrainian military command continues to address Ukraine’s manpower challenges. Head of the Ukrainian General Staff’s Main Department of Defense Planning Brigadier General Yevgeny Ostryanskyi stated on May 24 that the Ukrainian military command plans to reduce the General Staff’s personnel by 60 percent and reallocate the personnel following a functional survey of the General Staff in February and March 2024.[55] Ostryanskyi stated that the General Staff will disband 25 percent of its elements and will transfer the other 35 percent to other branches of the Ukrainian military. Ostryanskyi stated that the Ukrainian military command plans to re-staff operational and tactical level management bodies and combat military units, presumably by reallocating these personnel, in order to conduct rotations on the frontline. Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi stated on March 22 that the Ukrainian military was optimizing its military organization structures to simplify and maximize the quality and efficiency of Ukraine’s force management.[56] Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated on May 17 that consistent rotations for frontline units are an important step in improving Ukrainian morale and noted that Ukraine must sufficiently staff its units in order to conduct counteroffensive operations in the future.[57]

The US Department of Defense (DoD) announced a military assistance package worth $275 million on May 24 to help Ukrainian forces repel Russian offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast.[58] The package includes HIMARS ammunition; 155mm and 105mm artillery ammunition, Tube-Launched, Optically-Tracked, Wire-Guided (TOW) missiles; anti-tank systems, precision aerial munitions, mines, and other parts and equipment.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated on May 24 that NATO member states should consider lifting restrictions on Ukraine’s use of Western-provided weapons to strike military targets in Russia.[59] Stoltenberg stated that these restrictions make it difficult for Ukrainian forces to defend against the Russian offensive operation in northern Kharkiv Oblast. ISW continues to assess that Western limitations on Ukraine’s ability to strike military targets in Russia have created a sanctuary in Russia’s border area from which Russian aircraft can conduct glide bomb and missile strikes against Ukrainian positions and where Russian forces and equipment can freely assemble before entering combat.[60]

Key Takeaways:

  • Western media continues to report that Russian President Vladimir Putin is interested in a negotiated ceasefire in Ukraine, although Kremlin rhetoric and Russian military actions illustrate that Putin remains uninterested in meaningful negotiations and any settlement that would prevent him from pursuing the destruction of an independent Ukrainian state.
  • Russian sources that have spoken to Western media have also offered mutually contradictory characterizations of Putin’s stance on negotiations.
  • These Russian sources notably highlighted territorial concessions as part of Putin’s alleged envisioned ceasefire but have sparsely addressed the wider strategic objectives of Putin’s war in Ukraine.
  • A ceasefire does not preclude Russia from resuming its offensive campaign to destroy Ukrainian statehood, and Russia would use any ceasefire to prepare for future offensive operations within Ukraine.
  • Russia is currently preparing for the possibility of a conventional war with NATO, and the Kremlin will likely view anything short of Ukrainian capitulation as an existential threat to Russia’s ability to fight such a war.
  • The Kremlin will continue to feign interest in negotiations at critical moments in the war to influence Western decision-making on support for Ukraine and to continue efforts to extract preemptive concessions from the West.
  • Putin directly rejected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s legitimacy as president on May 24, the latest in a series of efforts to dismiss Zelensky’s authority to engage in or reject negotiations with Russia and undermine Ukrainians’ trust in Zelensky.
  • Unnamed Russian government officials and sources within the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and the Kremlin told the independent Russian outlet The Moscow Times that the ongoing effort to remove senior Russian defense officials and uniformed commanding officers will likely continue in the coming weeks and months.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted a series of successful missile strikes against military targets in Russian-occupied Ukraine on May 23 and 24.
  • Ukrainian forces reportedly conducted a drone strike against a Russian early warning radar system in Krasnodar Krai, Russia on the morning of May 23.
  • The Ukrainian military command continues to address Ukraine’s manpower challenges.
  • The US Department of Defense (DoD) announced a military assistance package worth $275 million on May 24 to help Ukrainian forces repel Russian offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast.
  • NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated on May 24 that NATO member states should consider lifting restrictions on Ukraine’s use of Western-provided weapons to strike military targets in Russia.
  • Russian forces recently advanced near Vovchansk, Svatove, Kreminna, and Donetsk City.
  • The Financial Times (FT) reported on May 23 that Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council Secretary Oleksandr Lytvynenko stated that Russia recruited more than 385,000 military personnel in 2023.
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