Kremlin insiders reportedly told Bloomberg that Russian President Vladimir Putin is preparing a new offensive to regain the initiative that may begin as early as February or March 2023. Russian officials, Kremlin advisors, and other unspecified knowledgeable figures who spoke on condition of anonymity reportedly told Bloomberg that Putin seeks to conduct a new major offensive and that he believes that Russia’s tolerance to accept causalities will allow Russia to win the war in the long run despite Russian failures so far. This report is consistent with ISW’s current assessment and forecast that the Kremlin is likely preparing to conduct a decisive strategic action—most likely in Luhansk Oblast—in the next six months intended to regain the initiative and end Ukraine’s current string of operational successes. ISW previously assessed that the decisive strategic action in Luhansk Oblast could be either a major offensive or a Russian defensive operation to defeat and exploit a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Recent limited Russian ground attacks in Zaporizhia Oblast may be intended to disperse Ukrainian forces and set conditions for an offensive in Luhansk. Russia is redeploying elements of the 2nd Motorized Rifle Division from Belarus to Luhansk Oblast. This recent development suggests that the planned Russian offensive referenced in the Bloomberg report is most likely aimed at Luhansk Oblast though it could also occur in the Vuhledar area in western Donetsk. This new offensive is extremely unlikely to target northern Ukraine from Belarus. There continues to be no indication that Russian forces are forming strike groups in Belarus; Russian elements in Belarus are largely using Belarusian infrastructure and training capacity for training rotations. Russian milbloggers are also increasingly writing off the notion of a second attack against Kyiv as an information operation and are suggesting that the most likely target for a Russian offensive would be in eastern Ukraine or neighboring Kharkiv Oblast.
The Kremlin confirmed that Russian President Vladimir Putin is issuing preemptive pardons for convicts who serve in Russian operations in Ukraine. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated on January 27 that he cannot provide additional information about presidential decrees on pardons because they are protected by “various classifications of secrecy.” Peskov’s statement confirms that Putin has been issuing preemptive presidential pardons to convicts, the majority of whom are likely recruited into the ranks of the Wagner Group. Russian Human Rights Council member Eva Merkacheva stated in early January that convicts recruited by Wagner are pardoned before their release from penal colonies. ISW previously assessed that these preemptive presidential pardons may be driving further recruitment within penal colonies and likely empower Wagner to operate with greater impunity in the theater.
A visual investigation by a Russian opposition outlet confirmed that Russian authorities are deporting children from occupied Kherson Oblast to occupied Crimea. Russian opposition outlet Verstka examined photos posted to an “Adoption in Moscow Oblast” website that showed 14 children aged two to five from Kherson Oblast at the Yolochka orphanage in Simferopol, occupied Crimea. Verstka noted that the Yolochka orphanage is subordinate to the Crimean Ministry of Health and specializes in the care of children with nervous system issues, mental and behavioral disorders, hearing and vision problems, and HIV. The Yolochka orphanage’s official work mandate provides for the education of its children with “patriotism and citizenship” on the grounds that “Crimea is located in the south of Russia” and the generation of “awareness of oneself as a citizen of multinational Russia.” Russian outlet RIA Novosti reported on Yolochka in 2020 and stated that children under Yolochka’s care were severely malnourished and neglected by orphanage leadership, prompting the intervention of the former Kremlin-appointed Commissioner on Children’s Rights Anna Kuznetsova (the predecessor of current Commissioner on Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova). Verstka’s investigation confirms that elements of the Russian occupation infrastructure in occupied areas of Ukraine are actively involved in the deportation and handling of Ukrainian children, as ISW has previously assessed. Head of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Filippo Grandi reiterated on January 27 that Russia is consistently in violation of “the fundamental principles of child protection” by putting Ukrainian children up for adoption.
Russian officials denied the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) report of explosions at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) on January 26, without accusing Ukrainian forces of being responsible for these explosions. IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi reported on January 26 that IAEA observers at the ZNPP informed him about explosions and detonations near the facility that indicated nearby military activity. The reference to military activity is notable as the IAEA routinely fails to comment on the Russian military’s activities on and near the ZNPP. Russian officials claimed that no explosions occurred near the plant and that the IAEA observers likely heard sounds of an artillery duel a considerable distance from the ZNPP. Zaporizhia Oblast Occupation Deputy Vladimir Rogov claimed that the IAEA was playing a political role to support Ukraine and amplified Russian Foreign Intelligence Service Head Sergey Naryshkin’s claim that Ukrainian forces are using nuclear power plants throughout Ukraine to store military equipment. The fact that Russian officials did not frame the event as a Ukrainian provocative shelling of the plant diverges from the routine Russian response to reports of explosions near the ZNPP. Russian officials will likely continue to use interactions with the IAEA to push for it to recognize its ownership of the ZNPP, and de facto recognize its illegal annexation of Zaporizhia Oblast.
The Russian military command is likely attempting to restrict milbloggers’ frontline coverage to regain control over the Russian information space ahead of a possible new offensive. Alexander Kots—a member of the Russian Human Rights Commission under Russian President Vladimir Putin and a prominent milblogger—stated that there are rumors that Russian authorities will require war correspondents to wear bright blue press vests to identify themselves as journalists in the combat zone. Kots and other milbloggers criticized the rumored decision, claiming that high-visibility vests will only help Ukrainian forces deliberately target war correspondents embedded in Russian units. Some milbloggers even admitted that they have been hiding their “PRESS” labels for years and noted that this allowed hundreds of war correspondents to independently work on the frontlines without anyone’s formal orders. The Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) First Deputy Information Minister Danil Bezsonov also argued that generals who are introducing these regulations should be responsible for each war correspondent’s death after making them an easily visible target on the ground. One milblogger accused the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) of deliberately introducing new bureaucratic requirements that will limit the milbloggers’ ability to operate on the frontlines.
These plans for restrictions—if they exist—are likely a part of the Chief of the Russian General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov’s efforts to professionalize the Russian Armed Forces. ISW previously reported that Russian milbloggers and nationalist figures had criticized the regulations introduced by the Russian military command requiring servicemen of Russian conventional forces to shave and banning them from using personal vehicles and cell phones on the frontlines. Gerasimov and the Russian MoD are likely attempting to formalize guidance for embedded reporters in Russian units, which is a standard practice in professional militaries aimed at maintaining operational security on the frontlines. The Russian milbloggers’ reaction is likely rooted in their fear that these press vests are little more than a Russian MoD ruse to strip the milbloggers of their independence from Russian government oversight given that they will likely need to undergo complex bureaucratic procedures to receive the Russian MoD’s permission to operate on the front lines to acquire the vests.
The Russian military command may also be attempting to resurrect its previously unsuccessful censorship efforts targeting the critical milblogger community. ISW previously reported that the Russian MoD conducted several unsuccessful attempts to promote self-censorship among milbloggers from different nationalist factions—including Wagner-affiliated milbloggers—in summer and fall 2022. Russian military command also previously attempted to promote self-censorship among milbloggers by pushing the narrative that Russian milbloggers have been violating Russian operational security by uploading combat footage or revealing Russian positions online. It is unclear if Russian President Vladimir Putin is supporting these restrictions given that he had been appeasing pro-war milbloggers by meeting with them, allowing them to autonomously operate on the frontlines, and tolerating their criticisms. The Kremlin is also continuing to integrate some select milbloggers by offering to let them host TV shows on Russian state broadcasters. The Russian MoD may be conducting its own line of effort to silence the milbloggers independent of Putin. ISW will continue to monitor to see if Putin overrules the Russian MoD’s efforts to silence milbloggers.
The Russian MoD’s effort to restrict embedded milbloggers in conventional units will not silence all milblogger criticism online, however. A Russian milblogger observed that restrictive measures such as government-distributed press vests will further solidify Wagner Group as the dominant source of independent frontline information since Wagner will not abide by such restrictions. The Russian MoD’s tactic to suppress information from the frontlines would create a vacuum in the information space for Wagner-affiliated milbloggers, who have a significantly stronger distaste for the Russian MoD, to fill. Russia’s use of unconventional military formations will also undermine the effectiveness of such regulations.
- Kremlin insiders reportedly told Bloomberg that Russian President Vladimir Putin is preparing a new offensive to regain the initiative that may begin as early as February or March 2023.
- The Kremlin confirmed that Russian President Vladimir Putin is issuing preemptive pardons for convicts who serve in Russian operations in Ukraine.
- A visual investigation by a Russian opposition outlet confirmed that Russian authorities are deporting children from occupied Kherson Oblast to occupied Crimea.
- Russian officials denied reported explosions near the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) on January 26.
- The Russian military command is likely attempting to restrict mibloggers’ frontline coverage to regain control over the Russian information space ahead of the new offensive. These restrictions—if planned—are likely a part of the Chief of the Russian General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov’s efforts to professionalize the Russian Armed Forces.
- Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations near Kreminna on January 26 and January 27.
- Russian forces continued ground attacks around Bakhmut, on the western outskirts of Donetsk City, and in western Donetsk Oblast.
- Russian sources did not report that Russian forces continued localized offensive operations in Zaporizhia Oblast on January 27.
- Russian officials claimed that the conscription age will not change in the upcoming 2023 spring conscription cycle.
- Russian occupation authorities are continuing to intensify efforts to integrate occupied territories into the Russian legal and administrative structures.