January 15, 2023

Russian forces make small advance southwest of Bakhmut 

Institute for the Study of War


ISW is publishing an abbreviated campaign update today, January 15. This report focuses on Russia’s likely preparation to conduct a decisive strategic action in 2023 intended to end Ukraine’s string of operational successes and regain the initiative.

The Kremlin is belatedly taking personnel mobilization, reorganization, and industrial actions it realistically should have before launching its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 invasion and is taking steps to conduct the “special military operation” as a major conventional war. Russian President Vladimir Putin began publicly signaling preparations for a protracted war in early December 2022, pledging that Russia will improve upon the mistakes of its earlier military campaigns and setting conditions for a protracted war in Ukraine. Putin notably remarked on December 7 that the “special military operation” in Ukraine could be a “lengthy process” and made several further public appearances throughout December indirectly outlining his goals to: improve the Russian war effort’s mobilization processes, revitalize Russia’s defense industrial base, centralize the Kremlin’s grip over the Russian information space, and reinstate the Russian Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) authority.

The Kremlin is likely preparing to conduct a decisive strategic action in the next six months intended to regain the initiative and end Ukraine’s current string of operational successes. Russia has failed to achieve most of its major operational objectives in Ukraine over the past eleven months. Russian forces failed to capture Kyiv, as well as Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, and to maintain gains in Kharkiv Oblast or hold the strategic city of Kherson. The Russian air and missile campaign targeting Ukrainian critical infrastructure under Army General Sergey Surovikin in late 2022 also failed to generate significant operational effects or demoralize Ukrainian society, as the Kremlin likely intended. Putin and senior Kremlin officials continue reiterating that Russia has not abandoned its maximalist objectives despite Russian defeats on the battlefield. While Putin has not changed his objectives for the war, there is emerging evidence that he is changing fundamental aspects of Russia’s approach to the war by undertaking several new lines of effort.

ISW has observed several Russian lines of effort (LOEs) likely intended to support a decisive action in the next six months.

LOE 1: The Kremlin is intensifying both near- and long-term force-generation efforts. Putin and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced plans to drastically expand the conventional Russian military by forming new divisions, reinstating pre-2010 military districts in western Russia, and increasing the conscription age — all indicating Russian intent (though likely not actual capability) to reform the Russian military to conduct large-scale conventional warfighting. Ukrainian intelligence reported that the Kremlin seeks to raise the number of military personnel to two million by an unspecified date (from about 1.35 million personnel as of September 2022), while Western intelligence officials noted that Russian military command is in “serious preparations” for a potential second wave of mobilization. Some Kremlin officials have begun discussing proposals to expand eligibility protocols for conscription, active mobilization, and the mobilization reserve, while Russian state structures are attempting to resolve past problems issuing mobilization summonses. Putin himself signed orders that expanded eligibility for mobilization by allowing the mobilization of convicts on November 4.

LOE 2: The Russian military is conserving mobilized personnel for future use — an inflection from the Kremlin’s initial approach of rushing untrained bodies to the front in fall 2022. Putin stated on December 7 that the Russian Armed Forces have not yet committed all mobilized personnel from the first mobilization wave to the frontlines, likely to take time to train and equip these forces for a later, concentrated use. Conventional Russian forces (as opposed to the Wagner Group and the DNR/LNR proxy forces) have not conducted major offensive operations and have mostly maintained defensive positions since the series of successful Ukrainian counteroffensives in summer and fall 2022. ISW has monitored conventional Russian units regrouping and training in Belarus and in Russia.

LOE 3: Russia is attempting to reinvigorate its defense industrial base (DIB). The Kremlin began placing a significant emphasis on the resurrection of the Russian DIB in December. Putin has held several senior meetings and visited defense enterprises throughout the country since December. Putin publicly acknowledged issues with supplies, such as the lack of reconnaissance drones, and notably demanded that one of his ministers issue state defense procurement contracts in a shorter-than-planned time frame. Putin and other Kremlin officials have also entertained vague discussions that Russian authorities may nationalize property to support the Russian war effort.

LOE 4: Putin is re-centralizing control of the war effort in Ukraine under the Ministry of Defense and appointed Russia’s senior-most uniformed officer, Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, as theater commander. The Kremlin is also reinstating the original planners of the war and belatedly attempting to correct command-structure deficiencies. Army General Sergey Surovikin and previous Russian theater commanders failed to achieve the decisive operations Putin — likely unrealistically — intended them to achieve. The Kremlin appointed Gerasimov as the Commander of the Joint Grouping of Forces in Ukraine on January 11 after previously sidelining Gerasimov throughout the full-scale invasion. The Russian MoD also appointed three deputies to closely work with Gerasimov on the expanded scale of tasks pertaining to the “special military operation.” The Kremlin likely intends Gerasimov and his newly appointed deputies to both prepare Russia for a protracted war and take command of a major effort in 2023.

LOE 5: The Kremlin is intensifying its conditioning of the Russian information space to support the war. The Kremlin is shaping the information space to regenerate support for the invasion by reintroducing pre–February 24 narratives and undertaking measures to regain control over war coverage, after previously ceding this space to a variety of independent actors. Kremlin officials resumed promoting a false narrative in late 2022 that the existence of an independent Ukraine threatens Russian sovereignty and culture, justifying Russia’s invasion and ongoing Russian sacrifices as inevitable and necessary “self-defense” measures. Kremlin propagandists have also intensified narratives about the international legal consequences awaiting Russia if it does not win the war, likely to stoke fears of defeat and motivate rededication to the war. The Kremlin has intensified efforts to develop relations with and co-opt prominent pro-war milbloggers who have emerged as a powerful alternative to Putin and the Russian MoD’s deliberately vague war coverage.

The Kremlin’s effort to prepare for a likely intended decisive strategic action in 2023 is not mutually exclusive with the Kremlin’s efforts to set conditions for a protracted war. ISW is not forecasting a “last ditch” Russian effort to win the war in Ukraine. The war will not end, and Russia will not necessarily lose, if any of the possible actions discussed below fail. Russia’s rapid attempt to capture Kyiv and conduct a regime change within the first two weeks of the war was a failed strategic decisive action, for example. Many of the aforementioned indicators — such as the Russian MoD’s proposal to create many new Russian divisions — are almost certainly in part intended to support a long-term effort beyond any decisive action planned for calendar year 2023. However, ISW does not assess the Kremlin is simply staying its course as it prepares for a protracted war.

Key inflections in ongoing military operations on January 15:

  • Ukrainian officials specified that a Russian Kh-22 missile struck a residential building in Dnipro City on January 14, killing at least 25–30 civilians. Ukrainian officials clarified inaccurate reporting that Ukrainian air defenses may have caused the destruction to the building, noting that Ukraine does not have the capability to shoot down Kh-22 missiles.
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin awarded medals to Wagner Group forces for the capture of Soledar, likely in an ongoing effort to frame the capture of Soledar as a Wagner accomplishment rather than a joint effort with the Russian Armed Forces, as the Russian Ministry of Defense previously claimed.
  • The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces repelled Russian ground assaults near Makiivka and Bilohorivka, Luhansk Oblast. A Russian milblogger claimed that Russian forces are transferring Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) off-road vehicles from Russia to Luhansk Oblast, possibly for use in combat.
  • Russian sources claimed that Russian forces finished clearing Soledar and attacked Ukrainian positions to the north, west, and southwest of the settlement. A Ukrainian source reported that Russian forces captured a mine west of Soledar near Dvorichchia on January 15.
  • Russian forces continued to attack Bakhmut and areas to the north, east, south, and southwest of the city. Russian forces made marginal territorial gains southwest of Bakhmut near Andriivka.
  • Ukrainian Kherson Oblast Military Advisor Serhiy Khlan stated that Russian forces increased their presence in occupied Kherson Oblast and that some Wagner Group forces arrived in Kherson Oblast. Russian occupation head of Kherson Oblast Vladimir Saldo claimed that the restoration of the Henichesk-Arabat Spit bridge improved Russian logistics into occupied Kherson Oblast.
  • A Russian servicemember reportedly detonated a grenade in a building where Russian soldiers quartered in Belgorod Oblast, Russia, possibly in a fratricidal act of resistance against mobilization. A Russian source reported that the grenade attack killed three and injured 10 mobilized personnel.
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