February 26, 2023

Ukraine prepares spring counter-offensive to sever Crimea links with Russian mainland

Institute for the Study of War

Tonight’s abbreviated campaign update focuses on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to avoid ordering involuntary mobilization by launching a series of irregular volunteer force generation campaigns since late May 2022 and the consequences of that attempt. Putin sought to satisfy the requirement for replacements following Russian defeats around Kyiv by conducting a voluntary recruitment campaign building on the existing campaigns already being conducted by quasi-official ultranationalist groups such as the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR) or the Wagner Group. Putin unsuccessfully attempted to establish new all-volunteer formations over the summer that competed with other existing quasi-official formations. Putin eventually abandoned his volunteer recruitment campaign after Ukrainian forces liberated much of Kharkiv Oblast between September 6 and September 11, ordering partial reserve mobilization on September 21.

The specter of limitless Russian manpower is a myth. Putin has already been forced to make difficult and suboptimal choices to offset the terrible losses his war has inflicted on the Russian military, and he will face similarly difficult choices in 2023 if he persists in his determination to use military force to impose his will on Ukraine and the West. Russia can mobilize more manpower, and Putin will likely do so rather than give up. But the costs to Putin and Russia of the measures he will likely need to take at this point will begin to mount rapidly.

Key inflections in ongoing military operations on February 26:

  • Deputy Head of the Ukrainian Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Vadym Skibitsky stated that Ukrainian forces will be ready for a counteroffensive this upcoming spring and that one of Ukraine’s strategic goals will be to drive a wedge into the Russian front in southern Ukraine between Crimea and the Russian mainland.[43]
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin falsely stated that the West is trying to break up the Russian Federation and suggested that Western security assistance to Ukraine makes the West a participant in the war.[44] Putin leaned on a longstanding rhetorical line of effort for raising domestic support for the war by falsely claiming that the West is threatening the survival of the Russian people as a unified ethnic group.[45]
  • Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu stated that the types of systems that the West provides to Ukraine will determine how far Russian forces need to push threats away from Russia’s borders, likely in support of an ongoing Russian information operation aimed at discouraging the Western provision of specific systems to Ukraine.[46]
  • US Central Intelligence Director William Burns stated on February 25 that the CIA is confident that Chinese leadership is considering the provision of lethal equipment to Russia but has not made a final decision.[47]
  • Russian forces continued to conduct unsuccessful operations northwest of Svatove and near Kreminna.[48]
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations around Bakhmut, and a prominent Russian milblogger claimed that Russian forces made further advances north of the city.[49]
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations along the western outskirts of Donetsk City and in western Donetsk Oblast.[50]
  • Representative of the Ukrainian Tavriisk operational direction Oleksiy Dmytrashkivyskyi reported that Russian forces are accumulating a large amount of Russian personnel and equipment near Vasylivka and Hulyaipole in Zaporizhia Oblast.[51]
  • Head of the Ukrainian Joint Coordination Press Center of the Southern Forces Nataliya Humenyuk stated that Russian forces are continuing to construct defensive fortifications in Crimea.[52] Humenyuk also reported that Russian forces conducted failed attempts to mine islands in the Dnipro River delta and are mining the east (left) bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast.[53]
  • A Ukrainian military officer reported that Russian forces are replacing Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs) with a new unit called the “Assault Unit” or “Assault Detachment” due to failures with their current assault tactics.[54] The Ukrainian military officer stated that Russian forces are transitioning from larger structures to smaller, more agile assault units that rely heavily on artillery support that are customizable to specific mission requirements.[55]
  • Russian military personnel from the 1439th  Regiment from Irkutsk Oblast released a video complaining about being subordinated under DNR commanders in Ukraine, further indicating that the Russian Ministry of Defense may be continuing to integrate DNR formations into the Russian Armed Forces through the subordination of mobilized personnel to these formations.[56]
  • Independent Russian outlet Dozhd reported that it identified communication between the Russian Ministry of Education and regional guardianship authorities revealing that Russian officials forcibly deported 400 Ukrainian children to Russian territory in August 2022.[57] Dozhd reported that 36 children had been placed into foster care by mid-January 2023 and that boarding schools received instructions not to place the children with families with Russian citizenship.[58] Dozhd also stated that Russian officials are subjecting the children to Russian patriotic-military education programs.[59]
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