January 12, 2023

Russian forces capture Soledar

Institute for the Study of War

FULL ARTICLE

Russian forces’ likely capture of Soledar on January 11 is not an operationally significant development and is unlikely to presage an imminent Russian encirclement of Bakhmut. Geolocated footage posted on January 11 and 12 indicates that Russian forces likely control most if not all of Soledar, and have likely pushed Ukrainian forces out of the western outskirts of the settlement.[1] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces repelled Russian attacks against Sil in Donetsk Oblast—a settlement over a kilometer northwest of Soledar and beyond previous Ukrainian positions.[2] The Ukrainian General Staff and other senior military sources largely did not report that Ukrainian forces repelled Russian assaults against Soledar on January 12 as they have previously.[3] Russian sources claimed that Russian forces are still clearing Soledar of remaining Ukrainian forces as of January 12.[4] Russian milbloggers posted footage on January 12 of Wagner Group fighters freely walking in Soledar and claimed that they visited the settlement alongside Russian forces.[5] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) has not announced that Russian forces have captured Soledar, but Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov congratulated Russian forces for successful offensive operations in the settlement.[6] All available evidence indicates Ukrainian forces no longer maintain an organized defense in Soledar. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s January 12 statement that Ukrainian forces maintain positions in Soledar may be referring to defensive positions near but not in Soledar.[7]

Russian information operations have overexaggerated the importance of Soledar, which is at best a Russian Pyrrhic tactical victory. ISW continues to assess that the capture of Soledar—a settlement smaller than 5.5 square miles—will not enable Russian forces to exert control over critical Ukrainian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) into Bakhmut nor better position Russian forces to encircle the city in the short term.[8] Russian forces likely captured Soledar after committing significant resources to a highly attritional tactical victory which will accelerate degraded Russian forces’ likely culmination near Bakhmut.[9] Russian forces may decide to maintain a consistently high pace of assaults in the Bakhmut area, but Russian forces’ degraded combat power and cumulative exhaustion will prevent these assaults from producing operationally significant results.[10]

Russian President Vladimir Putin likely seeks scapegoats for the Russian defense industrial base’s struggle to address equipment and technological shortages. Putin publicly criticized Russian Deputy Prime Minister Denis Manturov for aviation industry enterprises not receiving state orders during a cabinet of ministers meeting on January 11.[11] Putin stated that some enterprises have yet to receive state orders for 2023 and are not hiring more staff or preparing to increase output for potential orders in the future. Putin also interrupted Manturov’s explanation that the ministry had already drafted orders for civil and military industries, leading Manturov to admit that Russia had not issued a portion of documents for aircraft manufactures that would approve state funding for their projects. Putin argued that the enterprise directors informed him that they had not received any state orders amidst current “conditions” in Russia and urged Manturov to not “play a fool.” Manturov attempted to soften the demand by stating that the ministry will “try to do everything possible,” to which Putin responded that he should not try his best but instead complete the task within a month. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov later downplayed the altercation as “a normal workflow.”

This incident is likely part of an ongoing Kremlin information campaign to elevate Putin’s image as an involved wartime leader. The Kremlin could have cut out the disagreement from its official transcript (as it often does for most of Putin’s meetings, which are heavily edited and stage managed), but chose to publicize Putin’s harsh response, possibly to identify other officials within the Kremlin as the culprits for Russian defense industrial base’s challenges and possibly to threaten other officials. ISW previously reported that Putin began making more public appearances—including visiting defense industrial enterprises—in December and January, despite previously limiting his engagements throughout the span of the war in Ukraine.[12] Putin is also likely attempting to appease Russian milblogger critiques regarding the lack of advanced military equipment and Russia’s inability to task its defense industrial base to accommodate the war effort. ISW had also previously reported that some private armament manufacturers have criticized the Kremlin for failing to arrange any state contracts with their firms on their Telegram channels, feeding in their critiques into the milblogger discourse.[13]

Manturov’s attempts to soften Putin’s timeline indicate his uncertainty that the Kremlin has the capacity to administer these contracts in a short time period. Manturov tried to explain to Putin that the ministry will authorize additional contracts “based on the opportunities that are formed by the budget, including the preferential program of the National Wealth Fund,” highlighting the differences between the Russian financial reality and Putin’s unrealistic objectives for a short-term revitalization of the Russian defense industrial sector.

Ukrainian intelligence confirmed that senior Russian military leadership is preparing for significant military reforms in the coming year, though ISW continues to assess Russia will struggle to quickly—if at all—implement planned reforms. Deputy Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the Ukrainian General Staff, Brigadier General Oleksiy Hromov, stated on January 12 that Russian military leadership plans to increase military personnel to 1.5 million (from roughly 1.35 million as of September 2022) and form at least 20 new military divisions in 2023, which Hromov noted indicates “the Kremlin’s intentions to engage in a long-term confrontation and preparations for conducting large-scale hostilities.”[14] Hromov stated that Russia’s significant personnel, weapons, and equipment losses; the effects of international sanctions; and structural weaknesses in the Russian military apparatus have reduced Russia’s force generation capabilities and ultimately raise doubts about whether Russian forces can implement these reforms within undisclosed deadlines.[15] Hromov’s statements come the day after the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced a major restructuring of the senior command structure for Russian operations in Ukraine and suggest that the Russian military apparatus writ large is engaged in a concerted campaign to reform and restructure multiple tactical, operational, and strategic aspects.[16] ISW has also previously reported that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu proposed the expansion of the size of the Russian military and the formation of 17 new maneuver divisions at a Russian MoD Collegium in Moscow on December 21, 2022—it is unclear what additional 3 divisions Hromov is referring to.[17] ISW assessed that the Russian MoD has been steadily reversing the 2008 Serdyukov reforms (which sought to streamline the Russian ground forces and move to a brigade-based structure) by restoring maneuver divisions across Russian military districts since 2013, but that the Kremlin is unlikely to implement these reforms on a timeline that is relevant for Russia’s war on Ukraine.[18]  Restructuring of senior command structures, coupled with efforts to expand the military base in 2023, suggest that Russia is setting conditions for a long-term, concerted effort in Ukraine. The Russian MoD may also hold highly unrealistic expectations of its own ability to quickly restructure its ground forces.

Key Takeaways

  • Russian forces have likely captured Soledar on January 11, but this small-scale victory is unlikely to presage an imminent encirclement of Bakhmut.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin likely seeks scapegoats for the Russian defense industry base’s struggle to address equipment and technological challenges, and retains unrealistic expectations of Russian capacity to rapidly replace losses.
  • Ukrainian intelligence confirmed that senior Russian military leadership is preparing for significant military reforms in the coming year, though ISW continues to assess Russia will struggle to quickly—if at all—implement planned reforms.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces reportedly continued offensive operations along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations around Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and west of Donetsk City.
  • Russian forces continued defensive operations on the east (left) bank of the Dnipro River.
  • Russian officials and occupation authorities may be preparing for the mass deportation of Ukrainian citizens from occupied territories to the Russian Federation.
  • Chairman of the State Duma Committee on Defense Andrei Kartapolov announced that Russian military recruitment offices may increase the age of eligibility for conscription as early as this spring’s conscription cycle.
  • Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Ground Forces, Oleg Salyukov (who was appointed as one of Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov’s three “deputies” as theater commander in Ukraine), arrived in Belarus to take control of combat coordination exercises for the joint Russian-Belarusian Regional Grouping of Forces (RGV).
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