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ISW: Russian forces have likely committed to offensive operations in multiple sectors to seize and retain the initiative prior to the Russian presidential elections

10 Dec, 2023
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ISW: Russian forces have likely committed to offensive operations in multiple sectors to seize and retain the initiative prior to the Russian presidential elections

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Russian forces have likely committed to offensive operations in multiple sectors of the front during a period of the most challenging weather of the fall-winter season in an effort to seize and retain the initiative prior to the Russian presidential elections in March 2024. 

Russian forces are currently pursuing offensive efforts along much of the frontline in Ukraine, particularly along the Kharkiv-Luhansk region border, near Bakhmut, and towards Avdiivka as Ukrainian military officials have repeatedly noted, and Russian forces are also conducting continuous ground attacks in western Zaporizhia region.

The current pace of fighting across the entire frontline in Ukraine is generally consistent with ISW's standing assessment that Russian forces have been trying to regain the theater-level initiative since at least mid-November 2023.

Recent Ukrainian military official statements further suggest that Russian forces have succeeded in seizing the initiative along the Kharkiv-Luhansk region border, near Bakhmut, and along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City axis, while Ukrainian forces maintain the initiative in key areas of southern Ukraine, as evidenced by continued Ukrainian counterattacks in western Zaporizhia region and the sustained, larger-than-usual Ukrainian presence in east bank Kherson region.

It is noteworthy that Russian forces have made a concerted effort to regain the theater-wide initiative and initiate offensive operations during the period of the most difficult weather conditions for mechanized offensive operations in the fall, supporting ISW's long-standing assessment that poor weather conditions may slow but do not stop combat along the frontline.

Russian forces likely chose to attempt to regain the initiative during such poor weather because Ukrainian forces had largely deprived Russian forces of the ability to regain the initiative and conduct offensives during the summer period of weather much more conducive to military operations.

Russian concern over the impending Ukrainian counteroffensive even preceding the start of the Ukrainian counteroffensive in early June 2023 kept Russian forces in southern Ukraine in the first half of 2023 on the defensive, depriving them of the ability to pursue offensive opportunities in the south in that period.

Over the past several weeks, Russian forces have continued offensive operations along the Kharkiv-Luhansk region border despite snow, frost, and mud in eastern Ukraine, and have conducted continuous ground attacks in western Zaporizhia region despite muddy conditions and strong winds throughout most of the south.

Large areas of the frontline, particularly in northeastern and eastern Ukraine, are now transitioning into a period of hard freeze as the temperatures drop and the muddy ground freezes over, which will facilitate mechanized operations for both Russian and Ukrainian forces. The fact that Russian forces sought to seize the initiative and pursue offensive operations in early to mid-November 2023, during the most challenging weather conditions of the year, rather than waiting for the hard freeze suggests that Russian forces are under pressure to fully seize and maintain the initiative into the early months of 2024 prior to the upcoming March 2024 Russian presidential elections. The Russian command may also have sought to cause the Ukrainian counteroffensive to culminate or to ensure that Ukrainian forces would be unable to resume it early this winter. The timing of events suggests, however, that Kyiv had decided to significantly scale back its counteroffensive operations of its own accord before the Russian offensive operations began.

It remains unclear whether current Russian offensive operations will set conditions for Russian forces to make operationally significant gains in the near future, however. Difficult weather conditions have likely slowed the rate of Russian advance along much of the frontline, increased Russian losses, and further damaged the morale of Russian soldiers. The rate of Russian losses along the entire frontline in Ukraine appear to be close to the rate of Russian force generation, as ISW has previously observed, likely indicating that Russian forces are not amassing uncommitted reserves in preparation for more extensive winter operations.

Ukrainian forces, by contrast, appear to be using this period of challenging weather and ongoing Russian offensive operations to establish and consolidate defensive positions along the parts of the frontline where they have not been conducting counteroffensive operations, thereby conserving manpower and resources for future offensive efforts. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief General Valerii Zaluzhnyi recently signaled Ukraine's current intent to increase fortifications and defensive capabilities throughout the theater, particularly in the aforementioned areas of the front where Russian forces are pursuing offensive operations.

The establishment of Ukrainian tactical defensive positions will most likely strengthen Ukrainian forces' capabilities to defend against ongoing and costly Russian attacks with fewer forces of their own and/or while suffering fewer casualties in the defense. Furthermore, the establishment of Ukrainian tactical defensive positions may become a springboard for future Ukrainian offensive operations where and when Ukrainian forces choose to re-initiate offensive operations. The establishment of local defensive positions in areas Kyiv is not prioritizing for current or imminent counteroffensive operations is a prudent step and not an indication that Ukraine has abandoned all plans for future counteroffensives.

The Odessa Journal

The Odessa Journal

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