December 13, 2023

Institute for the Study of War:  The Kremlin floats notion of a ‘partitioned Ukraine’ 

Institute for the Study of War

The Kremlin appears to be returning to expansionist rhetoric last observed before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in an effort to resurface its claims that Ukraine is part of historically Russian territory and discuss the borders Russian leaders regard as appropriate for a rump Ukrainian state. Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council Dmitry Medvedev misrepresented US President Joe Biden’s response to a media question about whether the United States’ policy is to win the war or help Ukraine to defend itself during a joint press conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on December 12. Biden stated that the United States wants to see Ukraine win and that “winning means Ukraine is a sovereign, independent nation […] that can afford to defend itself today and deter further aggression.” Medvedev misrepresented Biden’s statements to suggest that the United States would be content if Ukraine simply existed as a country but does not care what Ukraine’s borders look like. Medvedev claimed that Ukraine can still technically be a sovereign country if the whole country remains within the borders of Lviv Oblast, for example. Medvedev also falsely claimed that Biden implied that the United States only supports Ukraine in defending itself but will not help Kyiv launch counteroffensives to liberate more of its land and people. Medvedev added that Ukraine could hypothetically “defend itself” as a rump state within the borders of Lviv Oblast.

Medvedev routinely and deliberately makes outlandish statements, but the timing of these statements and focus on the idea that Ukraine could exist only as a rump state within the territory of Lviv Oblast is consistent with earlier indicators that the Kremlin is returning to its domestic framing that Russia is fighting the war to “liberate its historic lands.” Medvedev’s comments follow shortly after Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova’s December 9 interview with AFP, which had likely marked an official rhetorical shift in the Kremlin’s framing of the war. Zakharova reiterated the Kremlin’s maximalist demands for full Ukrainian political capitulation and Kyiv’s acceptance of Russia’s military terms and introduced a vague prerequisite that Ukraine must withdraw its troops from “Russian territory” to resolve the war. ISW assessed at the time that Zakharova was likely referring to the illegally annexed four Ukrainian regions – which are not fully under Russia’s occupation. Zakharova’s statement, however, may have been purposely vague to allow Russia the freedom to define what it deems to be “Russian territories.” Medvedev‘s and Zakharova’s comments closely parallel Russia’s long-standing information operation that Ukraine could be partitioned into Russian-controlled “Malorossiya” (most of Ukraine) and a small rump Polish-controlled western Ukraine. ISW observed Russian propagandists intensify this information operation in the lead-up to the full-scale invasion and its notable decrease from then until now.

The return of the Kremlin’s notion of a “partitioned Ukraine” is likely an organized effort to mislead the international community into rejecting key components of Ukraine’s sovereignty: its territorial integrity as defined in 1991 and its right to self-determination. ISW assessed that the Kremlin used similar information operations in late 2021 and early 2022 to create conditions for Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine while misleading the West into the search for a diplomatic de-escalation. Russia is still pursuing its maximalist objective of controlling all of Ukraine and is using these information operations to deter further military aid to Ukraine and to stall for time needed to rebuild its defense industrial complex (DIB) and reconstitute its military.

Key Takeaways:



  • The Kremlin appears to be returning to expansionist rhetoric last observed before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in an effort to resurface its claims that Ukraine is part of historically Russian territory and discuss the borders Russian leaders regard as appropriate for a rump Ukrainian state.
  • The return of the Kremlin’s notion of a “partitioned Ukraine” is likely an organized effort to mislead the international community into rejecting key components of Ukraine’s sovereignty: its territorial integrity as defined in 1991 and its right to self-determination.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated on December 13 that Ukraine’s decision to transition to defensive operations is motivated by winter weather conditions and not a “crisis,” in response to a recent New York Times (NYT) article.
  • Russian and Ukrainian sources continue to report on the impacts of challenging weather conditions on offensive and reconnaissance operations throughout the front, even as reported freezing and snowy winter conditions in eastern Ukraine offer the prospect of better conditions for maneuver.
  • A Russian “Storm-Z” assault unit instructor complained that deputy commanders of Russian irregular armed formations are spreading illogical and false claims that present an overly optimistic view of the situation on the front in the Russian media and information space.
  • The instructor’s complaint about Russian sources spreading unsubstantiated and maximalist claims largely aligns with ISW’s mapping practices.
  • The Russian MoD is likely using formalized irregular unit commanders as a conduit to spread incorrect information about Russian battlefield successes within the Russian information space in order to circumvent the MoD’s responsibility.
  • Russian forces conducted a series of drone and missile strikes on the night of December 12 to 13.
  • A Russian hacker group reportedly linked to the Main Directorate of the Russian General Staff (GRU) and a Russia-aligned hacker group both claimed responsibility for the cyberattack on Ukrainian mobile operator Kyivstar.
  • The Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) stripped naturalized Russian citizens of their Russian citizenship for the first time, likely as part of ongoing migrant crackdowns aimed at coercing migrants into Russian military service while placating the xenophobic Russian ultranationalist community.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky attended the second Ukraine-Northern Europe Summit in Oslo, Norway on December 13.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, north of and near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, west of Donetsk City, along the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border area, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast and advanced in various sectors.
  • The Chuvash Republic is offering bonuses to foreigners who fight in the war in Ukraine, likely as part of efforts to recruit migrants to the Russian military.
  • Occupation authorities continue efforts to destroy Ukrainian national and historical identity.

For full report: https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-december-13-2023

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