February 6, 2023

Ukraine expects large-scale Russian offensive later this month

Institute for the Study of War

Ukrainian officials assess that Russian forces are preparing to launch a large-scale decisive offensive in eastern Ukraine in mid-to-late February. Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov stated on February 5 that the Ukrainian military is expecting Russia to start its decisive offensive around February 24 to symbolically tie the attack to the first anniversary of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine.[1] Reznikov also clarified that the Ukrainian military has not observed the formation of Russian offensive groups in the Kharkiv and Chernihiv directions or Belarus; Ukrainian Southern Operational Command Spokesperson Nataliya Humenyuk noted that Russian forces are likely concentrating on launching offensive operations in the east rather than in southern Ukraine.[2] An unnamed advisor to the Ukrainian military told Financial Times that Russia intends to launch an offensive in the next 10 days (by February 15), a timeline that would allow Russian forces to strike Ukrainian positions before the arrival of Western tanks and infantry fighting vehicles.[3] Luhansk Oblast Administration Head Serhiy Haidai stated that Russian forces are continuing to deploy reserves to Luhansk Oblast to strike after February 15.[4]

Select Russian nationalist voices continued to express skepticism towards Russia’s ability to launch a successful offensive past late February. A Wagner-affiliated milblogger noted that Chief of the Russian General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov (who currently commands Russian forces in Ukraine) has a limited time window to launch a large-scale offensive operation in Ukraine before it is entirely impossible to execute.[5] Another ultra-nationalist voice, former Russian officer Igor Girkin, forecasted that the Russian decisive offensive will not be successful until Russia mobilizes more manpower, industry, and economy.[6] Girkin claimed that an attack without such mobilization would shortly culminate. Both observations highlight that the Russian military command appears to be in a rush to launch the decisive offensive, likely ahead of the arrival of Western military aid and the muddy spring season in Ukraine around April that hindered Russian mechanized maneuvers in spring 2022.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz undermined Russian President Vladimir Putin’s false narrative that the provision of German tanks to Ukraine threatens Russian security. Putin stated on February 2 that German tanks are again threatening Russia, drawing a false parallel with World War II.[7] Scholz stated that Putin’s remarks are “a part of a series of abstruse historical comparisons that he uses to justify his attack on Ukraine.”[8] Scholz added that the West and Ukraine have a “consensus” that Ukrainian forces will only use Western-provided weapons to liberate its territories from Russian occupation. Germany’s provision of Leopard tanks does not differ from Western military provisions of Soviet tanks and kit to Ukraine throughout the war, and Putin’s February 2 reaction is likely a continuation of Russian information operation to discourage Western military aid to Ukraine ahead of Russia’s decisive offensive. Kremlin information agents are amplifying similar rhetoric that Ukrainian forces will use Ground Launched Small Diameter Bombs (GLSDM) – which increase the range of HIMARS to 151km from roughly 80km – to target Russian territory alongside occupied Ukrainian territories.[9] Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov confirmed on February 5 that Ukraine agreed to not use Western long-range weapons to strike Russian territories, however.[10]

Kremlin-appointed Russian and occupation officials continue to implement social benefit schemes that target children and teenagers in occupied areas of Ukraine to consolidate social control and integration of these territories into Russia. Russian Commissioner on Children’s Rights, Maria Lvova-Belova (appointed by Russian President Vladimir Putin) met with a slate of Russian occupation officials on February 6 to discuss various issues relating to children and youth in occupied regions of Ukraine. In a meeting with occupation head of Crimea Sergey Aksyonov, Lvova-Belova noted that the Crimean occupation government has been instrumental in “accepting” children from Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia, and Kherson oblasts.[11] Lvova-Belova also reported that the “Day After Tomorrow” organization will begin conducting “rehabilitation” tours in Crimea to work with children who need special psychological assistance.[12] ISW has previously reported on numerous instances of Russian occupation officials using the guise of psychiatric and medical rehabilitation to remove Ukrainian children further into Russian-controlled territory within Ukraine or deport them to Russia.[13] Sevastopol occupation head Mikhail Razvozhaev similarly announced that he met with Lvova Belova on February 6 to discuss “new formats of social work” on behalf of Putin and remarked that most of the children who require social support are not orphans.[14] Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) Head Leonid Pasechnik stated that Lvova-Belova proposed that children whose personal data is in the regional data bank will be “able to find a family in other regions of the Russian Federation.”[15] Pasechnik also reported that LNR authorities are working with Novosibirsk Oblast and Khanty-Mansi Okrug to secure “methodological assistance” in resolving issues regarding children in occupied Luhansk Oblast.[16] Lvova-Belova additionally met with Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) Head Denis Pushilin to develop programs “for the socialization of adolescents” and with Zaporizhia occupation head Yevgeny Balitsky to discuss social institutions for children in occupied Zaporizhia Oblast.[17]

Lvova-Belova is likely working directly on Putin’s orders to institute several social institutions and programs in occupied areas of Ukraine to collect personal data on children, carry out various social programming functions aimed at integrating occupied areas using pseudo-humanitarian organizations, and set conditions to legitimize and institutionalize the deportation and adoption of Ukrainian children into Russian families. Putin signed a list of instructions on January 3 that directed Lvova-Belova and directed the occupation heads of Kherson, Zaporizhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk oblasts to “take additional measures to identify minors…left without parental care” in occupied areas to provide them with “state social assistance” and “social support.”[18] Lvova-Belova’s February 6 meetings with occupation heads are likely the manifestation of Putin’s list of instructions and represent an escalation in efforts by Kremlin-appointed officials to consolidate social integration of occupied territories by targeting children.[19] The implementation of “rehabilitation centers” and the tabulation of children’s personal data through these social programs will likely enable Russian occupation officials to facilitate the forced deportation and adoption of Ukrainian children to Russian families. Occupation officials continue to execute social control measures in occupied areas according to directives provided by Putin’s list of instructions. ISW continues to observe that efforts to deport and forcibly adopt Ukrainian children may constitute a violation of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.[20]

Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to open the door for further institutionalized corruption in Russia through legislative manipulations. Putin signed a decree on February 6 allowing Russian deputies and senators to not publish their incomes in the public domain.[21] The law will allow deputies and senators to publish their incomes in an anonymized form that does not contain their personal data. The law will also apply to regional and municipal deputies.[22] Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov claimed that the new law will not affect anti-corruption measures and stated that “the conditions of the [special military operation] bring their own specifics.”[23] Putin previously approved a decree on December 29, 2022, that exempted all Russian officials, including members of the military and law enforcement, from making public income declarations.[24] These two decrees are likely efforts by the Kremlin to appease the political actors who comprise Putin’s domestic support base and will likely continue to contribute to the institutionalization of corruption in Russia.

The Kremlin continues to deny Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin legitimacy and authority in Russia. A Moscow court refused to recognize Prigozhin as the owner and founder of Wagner private military company (PMC) after revisiting Prigozhin’s lawsuit against Russian journalist Alexei Venediktov on February 6.[25] Prigozhin sued Venediktov in June 2021 for accusing him of being the “owner of Wagner,” and the Moscow court concluded that information about Prigozhin’s ownership of Wagner was “unreliable.”[26] Prigozhin attempted to reverse the court’s decision on January 19, claiming that Venediktov did not lie about Prigozhin’s ownership of Wagner—likely in an ongoing effort to overcompensate for his declining influence following the replacement of war-torn Wagner forces around Bakhmut with Russian conventional units.[27] ISW previously assessed that the Russian military’s decreasing reliance on Wagner forces around Bakhmut is likely reducing Prigozhin’s influence within the Kremlin inner circle.[28]

Prigozhin’s appeal in the Russian nationalist information space may also be declining as he continues to overcompensate for the culmination of Wagner’s attack around Bakhmut. A prominent Kremlin-affiliated milblogger commented on a video showing Prigozhin piloting an Su-24M bomber aircraft supposedly over Bakhmut on February 6.[29] The milblogger stated that Prigozhin became the main player in Russian information space rather than the traditional Russian military command which “lacked creativity.”[30] Prigozhin also “declared” the US, UK, and Canadian governments to be illegitimate states that sponsor terrorism according to the “Wagner Charter.”[31] The milblogger stated that Prigozhin’s manipulation of the information space – specifically his skill in trolling – had allowed him to gain more political influence than a Russian Defense Minister.[32] ISW assessed on October 25 that Prigozhin weaponized the Russian information space and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reliance on his forces to gain political leverage in Russia.[33] The milblogger’s acknowledgment of Prigozhin’s flashy tactics may indicate that the non-Wagner-affiliated nationalist information space may be awakening to Prigozhin’s efforts to use the war in Ukraine for personal benefit. Wagner-affiliated milbloggers, in turn, continued to celebrate Prigozhin and previous theater commander Army General Sergey Surovikin as the only two leaders who have “confirmed their high qualifications and enjoy the trust of the political leadership of the country and the people.”[34]

Failures of Western sanctions efforts against the provision of arms components to Iran have likely contributed to Russia’s ability to bypass Western sanctions to acquire components for combat drones through military cooperation with Iran. US officials stated on February 5 that Russia and Iran are moving ahead with plans to build an Iranian drone factory on Russian soil, the second such international Iranian drone factory.[35] Iran opened a drone production factory in Tajikistan – a Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) member state and Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) candidate – in May 2022.[36] Russia may leverage its significant economic ties to Tajikistan through the CSTO and EAEU to launder drone components or procure manufactured drones for use in Ukraine to bypass international sanctions.[37]

UK investigative group Conflict Armament Research (CAR) reported in November 2022 that 82% of Iranian Shahed-131, Shahed 136, and Mohajer-6 drones downed in Ukraine had chips, semiconductors, and other components that came from the US despite high import and export control restrictions on such components to Iran.[38] CAR also noted that the downed drones contained higher-end technological capabilities and have a “significant jump in capabilities” compared to other systems previously observed in the Middle East.[39] Most Western-manufactured components in the downed Iranian drones were produced between 2020 and 2021, following the expiration of United Nations Security Council heavy arms sanctions against Iran in 2020.[40] Most Western companies whose components were found in downed Iranian drones in Ukraine denied directly selling components to Russia, Iran, or Belarus since the start of the war.[41] However, the representative of a Swiss manufacturing company noted that it is impossible to be completely sure that distributors of arms components do not sell components to sanctioned entities, implying that Russia, Iran, or other sanctioned states can exploit loopholes allowing them to acquire Western-produced arms components via proxy actors.[42]

Key Takeaways

  • Ukrainian officials assess that Russian forces are preparing to launch a large-scale decisive offensive in eastern Ukraine in mid-to-late February.
  • Select Russian nationalist voices continued to express skepticism toward Russia’s ability to launch a successful offensive past late February.
  • German Chancellor Olaf Scholz undermined Russian President Vladimir Putin’s false narrative that the provision of German tanks to Ukraine threatens Russian security.
  • Kremlin-appointed Russian and occupation officials continue to implement social benefit schemes that target children and teenagers in occupied areas of Ukraine to consolidate social control and integration of these territories into Russia.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to open the door for further institutionalized corruption in Russia through legislative manipulations.
  • The Kremlin continues to deny Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin legitimacy and authority in Russia.
  • Prigozhin’s appeal in the Russian nationalist information space may also be declining as he continues to overcompensate for the culmination of Wagner’s attack around Bakhmut.
  • Failures of Western sanctions efforts against the provision of arms components to Iran have likely contributed to Russia’s ability to bypass Western sanctions to acquire combat drones through military cooperation with Iran.
  • Russian forces likely made tactical gains northeast of Kupyansk between February 4 and February 6, and Russian sources claimed that Russian forces advanced west of previous positions on the Svatove-Kreminna line on February 5 and February 6.
  • Ukrainian forces maintain positions in Bilohorivka in Luhansk Oblast as of February 6 despite Russian claims that Russian forces captured Bilohorivka on February 3.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks northeast and south of Bakhmut but still have not encircled the settlement as of February 6.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks in the Avdiivka-Donetsk City area.
  • Ukrainian forces continued limited attempts to cross the Dnipro River.
  • Russian conventional and irregular forces may be increasingly struggling to recruit from Russian penal colonies due to high casualties among prior penal colony recruits.
  • Russian forces continue to struggle with ethnic tensions and tensions between irregular forces.
  • Russian officials and occupation authorities may be intensifying operational security to conceal new Russian force deployments in Donbas.
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