January 25, 2023

Russian forces may be planning ground offensive in Luhansk

Institute for the Study of War

Russian forces may be engaging in limited spoiling attacks across most of the frontline in Ukraine in order to disperse and distract Ukrainian forces and set conditions to launch a decisive offensive operation in Luhansk Oblast. Russian forces have re-initiated offensive operations, namely limited ground attacks, on two main sectors of the front in the past few days—in central Zaporizhia Oblast along Kamianske-Mali Shcherbaky-Mala Tokmachka line and in the Vuhledar area of western Donetsk Oblast.[1] Ukrainian officials have noted that these attacks are conducted by small squad-sized assault groups of 10 to 15 people and are aimed at dispersing Ukrainian defensive lines.[2] The size and nature of these attacks suggest that they are more likely spoiling attacks that seek to distract and pin Ukrainian forces against discrete areas of the front than a concerted effort to relaunch offensive operations to gain ground in the central Zaporizhia and western Donetsk directions.

These limited attacks are notably ongoing as the pace of Russian operations around Bakhmut, led by the Wagner Group, seems to be decreasing. Following the Russian capture of Soledar in mid-January, the attacks on Bakhmut and surrounding settlements have apparently dropped off, suggesting that the Russian offensive operation to take Bakhmut may be culminating. The Wagner Group has failed to deliver on its promise of securing Bakhmut and has been unable to progress beyond minor tactical gains in Soledar and other surrounding small settlements. Russian military leadership may have, therefore, decided to de-prioritize operations around Bakhmut after recognizing the low likelihood that Wagner will actually be able to take the settlement. As ISW has previously suggested, Russian sources may be pushing the narratives of claimed Russian offensive operations in central Zaporizhia and western Donetsk Oblast in order to inflate the Russian information space with positive narratives that compensate for abject failures around Bakhmut.[3] Both the information space effects and the attacks themselves may be intended to distract focus from the lack of gains in Bakhmut and draw Ukrainian forces to the areas in question.

The Russian military appears to be shifting its focus towards conventional forces and away from the non-traditional force structure of the Wagner Group, potentially in preparation for a decisive effort in Luhansk Oblast. On the strategic level, certain changes to Russian command reflect a gradual transition away from reliance on unconventional force groupings such as Wagner and towards supporting and empowering conventional Russian elements. The recent appointment of Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov to overall theater command of Russian forces in Ukraine (and subsequent demotion of Wagner Group favorite Army General Sergey Surovikin) suggests that Russian military leadership is increasingly looking to the traditional and conventional military establishment that Gerasimov represents and leads. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) has similarly engaged in efforts to reform and standardize the conventional military in line with Gerasimov’s appointment.[4] Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be empowering Gerasimov to take steps that undermine Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and the unconventional force structure he represents.[5] The shift toward conventional forces is also increasingly apparent on the operational and tactical levels. Various conventional elements (namely from the 3rd Motor Rifle Division and Airborne Forces) have been arrayed across the Svatove-Kreminna line in Luhansk Oblast and are notably not supporting Wagner Group operations around Bakhmut, indicating that Russian military leadership may be allocating conventional forces to what they regard as a more promising axis of advance.[6] Ukrainian intelligence relatedly noted that elements of the 2nd Motor Rifle Division of the 1st Guards Tank Army of the Western Military District have withdrawn from Belarus and partially deployed to Luhansk Oblast.[7]

The array of conventional forces across the Luhansk Oblast frontline suggests that Russian forces may be preparing for a decisive effort in this sector, supported by limited spoiling attacks elsewhere on the frontline to distract and disperse Ukrainian forces. ISW has previously discussed indicators of a potential decisive Russian effort in Luhansk Oblast.[8] Taken in tandem with a variety of intelligence statements that Russia is preparing for an imminent offensive operation in the coming months, it is likely that a decisive effort in Luhansk Oblast would be an offensive one.[9] The most probable course of a Russian offensive action in Luhansk Oblast would be premised on launching an attack along the Svatove-Kreminna line, supported by critical ground lines of communication (GLOCs) that run into major logistics hubs in Luhansk City and Starobilsk, in order to reach the Luhansk Oblast administrative border and complete the capture of the remaining part of Luhansk Oblast that is still Ukrainian-controlled. Russian forces may hope to recapture critical ground in northern Donetsk Oblast around Lyman and use the Svatove-Kreminna line to launch further attacks into western Kharkiv and/or northern Donetsk Oblasts. Russian forces are exceedingly unlikely to be able to gain substantial ground on this axis even if they do launch a successful offensive operation on this sector, however.

The Kremlin and Russian milbloggers attempted to play down the Western provision of tanks to Ukraine, indicating that they likely find these systems threatening to Russian prospects. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated on January 25 that the Western provision of Abrams and Leopard tanks to Ukraine is “quite a failure … in terms of technological aspects” and that there is a “clear overestimation of the potential that [these tanks] will add” to Ukrainian forces.[10] Some Russian milbloggers likely sought to reassure their domestic audiences by claiming that these systems do not pose a significant threat and that previous Western systems like HIMARS are a far more serious threat.[11] The Kremlin and Russian milbloggers previously framed the Western provision of purely defensive Patriot missile systems as a serious escalation between Russia and the West.[12] The fact that the Kremlin and Russian milbloggers did not frame the provision of armored vehicles that could actually aid future Ukrainian counteroffensive operations as escalatory suggests that the Kremlin and the Russian information space continue to selectively choose which systems to frame as an escalation. The Kremlin and Russian milbloggers seem more concerned in this case with calming potential fears of the impact of Western commitments to supply Ukraine with tanks than with feeding the escalation narrative in the West. The Kremlin and its allies are right to be concerned about these new Western commitments, which allow Ukrainian commanders to plan against replacements for tank losses they could expect in counter-offensive operations that might be launched even before the Western tanks begin to arrive.

Key Takeaways

  • Russian forces may be engaging in limited spoiling attacks across most of the frontline in Ukraine in order to disperse and distract Ukrainian fronts and launch a decisive offensive operation in Luhansk Oblast.
  • The Russian military appears to be shifting its focus toward conventional forces deployed to Luhansk Oblast and away from the non-traditional force structure of the Wagner Group and its focus on Bakhmut.
  • The Kremlin and Russian milbloggers attempted to downplay the Western provision of tanks to Ukraine, indicating that they likely find these systems threatening to Russian prospects.
  • Russian forces claimed that Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations near Svatove as Russian forces continued limited ground attacks near Kreminna.
  • Ukrainian forces have likely made advances around Kreminna.
  • Ukrainian officials acknowledged that Ukrainian forces withdrew from Soledar.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations in the Bakhmut and Avdiivka-Donetsk City area. Russian forces reportedly continued localized offensive operations near Vuhledar.
  • Russian forces continued to conduct small-scale ground attacks across the Zaporizhia Oblast front line, likely to attempt to fix Ukrainian forces in Zaporizhia Oblast.
  • Russian milbloggers are divided over the veracity of Zaporizhia Oblast occupation official Vladimir Rogov’s ongoing, overblown information operation.
  • The Kremlin is attempting to downplay new restrictions on crossing the Russian border, likely in an effort to contain panic within Russian society about a likely second mobilization wave.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin may be attempting to conduct another wave of mobilization discreetly out of concern for undermining his support among Russians.
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