Introduction

This report provides an analysis of Russia’s anticipated winter strike campaign in Ukraine for 2023. It focuses on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, missile stockpiles, and recent shaping activities of the Russian military.

Ukraine’s Energy Infrastructure

Ukraine’s energy infrastructure comprises five categories: Nuclear, Hydroelectric, Thermal (coal, natural gas), Solar and Wind. During the 2022 Russian winter strike campaign, approximately 40% of Ukraine’s total energy infrastructure was damaged by long-range strikes. [i] More than 92 attacks on energy infrastructure through October and November 2022 impacted an estimated 10.7 million households throughout Ukraine[ii]. On 5th December 2022, Russia took advantage of the worsening winter living conditions, targeting Odesa’s power grid ultimately leaving 1.5 million residents without electricity.[iii] Similar heavy strikes followed throughout winter until March 2023, effectively ending Russia’s 2022 winter strike campaign. By spring 2023, the Ukrainian electricity transmission, which includes 23,600km of overhead lines and 141 substations with a voltage between 110 and 750kV, was left more than 45% destroyed.[iv] Notably, since the capture of Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) in March 2022, and the subsequent shelling of the main 750kV power line that powers the plant[v] – strikes targeting nuclear power facilities have been reduced.

Russian damage to Ukrainian Energy Infrastructure. Source: @TRTWorldNow

Russia’s Missile Stockpiles

Russia entered the war in Feb 2022 with an estimated 2,200+ Iskander, Kalibr, Kh and Kinzhal missiles. However, after the October 2022 – March 2023 winter strike campaign, they were left with an estimated 536 (19% of their original stockpile).[vi] Throughout spring and summer 2023 Russia has attempted to replenish its missile stockpiles, for a renewed winter offensive. See below for Russia’s assessed recent, current, and projected missile stockpiles:

This table has been created using calculations based off the Ukrainian GUR’s assessed existing stockpiles and subsequent August production plan for Russia. This included the production of 42 Iskander short-range ballistic missiles, 40 Kh-101 long-range cruise missiles, and 20 Kalibr cruise missiles with various applications. The plan also mentioned a maximum of 10 Kh-32 supersonic anti-ship missiles and “more than six” Khinzal air-launched ballistic missiles per month. [vii][viii][ix] The assessed figures in these calculations are further corroborated by Ukrainian GUR’s 6 November predictions on Russian missile numbers.[x]

According to Russia’s three-stage plan for the fabrication of 4,000 Shahed drones by summer 2025, they will have produced more than 1,800 drones by the beginning of December. However, this does not take into consideration vulnerabilities that could disrupt production like scarcity of components, staffing struggles and sanctions.[xi] The current number of Lancet and the newly produced Italmas (Geran-3) drones Russia has stockpiled is currently unknown.

Kalibr missile downed by Ukrainian Air Defence” Source: @OSINTtechnical

Recent Shaping and Information Collection Activity

As we approach winter months, Russia has initiated shaping operations, experimenting with different strike tactics to pinpoint, evade and overwhelm improved, mostly Western-supplied, Ukrainian air-defences. By this point last year (November 2022), Russian forces were already two months into their winter strike campaign. However, last year Ukraine did not have the level of Western defensive capability it enjoys this time round, and Russia had a greater number of missiles to use more liberally. This year the situation is different and requires more deliberate planning, preparation, and shaping activity by the Russian forces to maximise effects. The following timeline illustrates Russia’s recent shaping activities (developments of tactics underlined):

30 September. 30 x Shahed drones were launched into Ukraine that were reportedly more resistant to electronic warfare (EW) and more difficult to shoot down.

2 October. 31 x Shahed drones and one (1) Iskander-K cruise missile launched into Mykolaiv, using diverse ingress flight paths from various locations in occupied Crimea.

6 October. 33 x Shahed drones were launched into Ukraine comprised of small groups, using diverse ingress flight paths from various locations in occupied Crimea.

12 October. 33 x Shahed drones were launched into Kharkiv and Odesa using diverse ingress flight paths from various locations in Belgorod and occupied Crimea.

23 October. A combination of 13 x Shahed drones, one (1) Kh-59 guided air missile and one (1) unspecified attack UAV were launched into Ukraine using diverse ingress flight paths from various locations in occupied Crimea and Zaporizhzhia.

3 November. 40 x Shahed drones and one (1) Kh-59 cruise missile was launched into Ukraine from occupied Kursk Oblast and Primorsko-Akhtarsk. The initial wave of drones was comprised of small groups of drones used to scout Ukrainian air defences followed by multiple waves of larger groups of drones in a bid to overwhelm the Ukrainian response.

6 November. A combination of 22 x Shahed drones, one (1) X-31 and one (1) Kh-59 guided missile, one (1) P-800 Onyx anti-ship missile, and one (1) Iskander-M ballistic missile were launched into Ukraine, using diverse ingress flight paths from occupied Crimea.

As well as trialling different combinations of air-based and sea-based long-range missiles, kamikaze drones and guided air bombs, Russia also continued targeting the personnel of the energy companies performing emergency repairs, thereby inflicting maximum casualties on the energy sector, and reducing Ukraine’s ability to efficiently restore the power supply.[xii] Unconfirmed reporting states that the Russia is currently attempting to integrate Artificial Intelligence (AI) into their drone swarms, likely in an effort to provide the greatest number of threat vectors and angles-of attack in order to defeat Ukrainian target tracing and interception attempts. The combination of ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, anti-radiation missiles and multiple drone types is likely to overwhelm the Ukrainian Integrated Air Defence System and strike a greater number of targets for maximum effect.

UK-supplied anti-air defence downing Shahed drone. Source: @OSINTtechnical

Statistics provided by General Prosecutors Office of Ukraine.

So What?

Despite leaving Ukraine’s power grid limping through 2023 at only 60% capacity, Russia left themselves with only 19% of their pre-war missile reserves. Ukraine has benefitted from huge foreign aid investment to help them not only restore their power infrastructure but fortify it from future strike campaigns. While Ukraine focused its efforts on repairing and restoration efforts, Russia has been balancing replenishing its dwindled missile reserves, with destroying Ukrainian port and grain infrastructure in response to the breakdown of the Black Sea Grain Initiative and shaping/planning for their 2023 strike campaign. As frontline pushes from both sides have ground to a halt similar to the 1917 stalemate of World War 1, both sides are almost certainly using this time to put in the preparations necessary for an aggressive winter strike campaign. Ukraine is procuring hundreds of new transformers from abroad[xiv], fortifying them with multiple layers of anti-drone and missile defence technology, and western supplied air-defence,[xv] while Russia continues to increase their military spending budget and capacity for building more strike munitions.[xvi]

What Next?

To help assess a timeline of future events, the synchronisation matrix (sync matrix) below, is designed to represent when different conditions are present. It provides an assessment of when optimum conditions will be set for Russia’s long-range strike campaign against Ukrainian CNI. For clarity and simplicity, this example focuses only on weather conditions and assessed missile stockpiles and does not consider external strategic and political considerations. Our sync matrix indicates that optimum conditions for Russia to strike begin 2 December 2023. The combination of weather factors and stockpiled missile reserves from this date will ensure the maximum burden of care for the Ukrainian state.

Yellow = Acceptable condition. Green = Optimum condition. Orange = Assessed commencement of Russia’s 2023 Winter Strike Campaign.

The cold, winter weather in Ukraine will hit freezing towards the end of November. Combined with other weather factors (precipitation, cloud cover, non-freezing cold injuries), the burden of care for the Ukrainian state is substantially higher in the colder months. Russia will almost certainly exploit these adverse weather conditions. Delaying their winter strike campaign to the colder months this year will allow them to have more impact with fewer munitions. This is due to the considerable difficulty experienced by repair workers when working in snow and sub-zero temperatures. As non-freezing cold injuries like frostbite, hypothermia and pneumonia begin to take their toll on the populace, UkrEnergo will have to manage the pressure of time-critical repair works and the effects of adverse weather conditions on their workforce.

Last year (2022), 250 of the 1,200 long-range munitions launched at energy infrastructure reached their intended target – approximately 21%.[xviii] The recent adaptation of Russian strike tactics from months of shaping, probing, and understanding the Ukrainian defence systems will almost certainly affect how Russia expend their scarcer missile reserves for their 2023 winter strike campaign. The use of diverse ingress flight paths in the shaping phase will have given Russian forces a well-developed intelligence picture of Ukrainian air defence capabilities, locations, and vulnerabilities. Capability enhancements such as the modernisation of Lancet drones with thermal cameras and improved guidance systems will likely make them more effective when used in tandem with the newly manufactured Italmas drone. These Italmas drones, known for their lightweight construction, enhanced low-observable capabilities, and cost-effectiveness compared to Shahed drones, will likely augment Russian military capabilities. However, the Italmas drones, while offering several advantages, possess limited utility when operating independently due to their lighter payload capacity, but can still achieve significant destruction when used en-mass and against soft or unprotected targets. Therefore, Russian forces are expected to employ them in coordination with Shahed drones and cruise missiles. Swarm tactics using Lancet drones and tube artillery are highly likely to be deployed within a 20-30km radius of the FLET (Forward Line of Enemy Troops). In contrast, a range of combinations involving Shahed and Italmas drones, alongside air and ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles, will be used to target fortified Ukrainian energy infrastructure across different regions of Ukraine and in greater depth.

Diverse ingress flight paths of Shahed drones launched on the night of 5th October. Likely used to understand

In the event of Ukrainian successes on the battlefield (like a breakthrough at the bridgehead in Kherson), there is a realistic possibility Russia will make adaptations, diverting Lancets and guided munitions from Smerch and Uragan from Ukrainian energy infrastructure to ground assaults. This is where EW payloads in drones will be most useful. The effective suppression of Ukrainian air defence with EW payloads to support Russian ground forces will help ensure survivability of munitions, thereby facilitating ground operations.

Thermal power stations will likely suffer from targeted attacks on the storage and transport of coal and natural gas. These targeted attacks will aim to disrupt and destroy the facilitation of energy supplies as well as employees of the energy infrastructure, thus increasing the burden of care on the state of Ukraine and creating a deterrent for prospective energy employees.

At sea, Russian forces continue to lay sea mines along shipping lanes from Odesa across the Black Sea. As a result, grain silos will likely begin to fill as dry cargo ships are unable to leave port, thus becoming higher value targets of greater strategic importance. International conferences, funding efforts and key dates will also continue to influence Russian reactions. There is the energy security, resilience, and recovery conference in Kyiv on 12 December, and the changing of Ukrainian Christmas Day (from 7 January to 25 December this year to align with the West), will likely be met with a demonstrative Russian long range strike package against infrastructure targets across Ukraine.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the analysis of Russia’s anticipated 2023 winter strike campaign in Ukraine is dependent on many factors. Despite leaving Ukraine’s power grid impaired last winter, Russia faced significant depletion of its pre-war missile reserves. Ukraine, propped up by foreign aid this year has focused on restoring and fortifying their energy infrastructure. The recent shaping activities, illustrated by diverse strike tactics and intelligence gathering, highlight Russia’s strategic adaptation to the evolving defensive capabilities of Ukraine. As the cold weather approaches, Russia will almost certainly exploit the adverse weather conditions, delaying its winter strike to maximise impact with fewer munitions. The synchronisation matrix points to 3 December 2023 as the opening date of the optimal time for Russia’s long-range strike campaign, considering weather and missile stockpiles. The beginning of a major winter strike campaign is likely to be conditions-based rather than on a specific date however, and will almost certainly flex depending on weather, availability of munitions, and operational/strategic successes or changes.

References and links

[i] axois.com

[ii] hrw.org

[iii] reuters.com

[iv] energycharter.org

[v] reuters.com

[vi] pravda.com

[vii] aviationweek.com

[viii] understangingwar.org

[ix] thenationalnews.com

[x] understandingwar.org

[xi] washingtonpost.com

[xii] energycharter.com

[xiii] gp.gov

[xiv] euromaidanpress.com

[xv] rferl.org

[xvi] lemonde.fr

[xvii] weatherspark.com

[xviii] energycharter.org