Winter Strike Campaign

Over the festive period Ukraine suffered extensive missile and drone attacks on Kyiv, Lviv, Odesa, Zaporizhzhia, Dnipro and Kharkiv. On 29 Dec, 158 missiles and drones (the largest single bombardment since the invasion began) were launched in response to the destruction of the Russian Ropucha-class landing ship “Novocherkassk”. The following day, further missile strikes damaged the NGO-hotspot, Kharkiv Palace Hotel, as well as three medical institutions and other residential properties in Kharkiv. On 8 Jan, another massive attack consisting of Shahed drones, S-300 missiles, Kinzhals, Kh-101/555/55 cruise missiles and Iskanders was launched, aimed at energy, defence, and civilian infrastructure.

So What?

There’s been a strategic shift by Russia. Initially targeting Ukrainian energy infrastructure, there’s now a focus on Ukraine’s Defence Industrial Base (DIB), aiming to disrupt weapon and ammunition production. This is likely either a temporary or intermittent measure, with energy infrastructure likely still being the main focus. This is likely because of the fluid nature of DIB locations, which once destroyed can reappear anywhere – for example, using an old residential building to manufacture/prepare drones. The main reason this is a concern is because of the natural dispersion of DIB into civilian areas which may provide concealment but does not serve as a deterrent against Russia’s relatively permissive rules of engagement (RoE). 

The aggressive Russian retaliatory strikes in response to widely publicised successful offensive action by Ukraine (the destruction of the Novocherkassk, successful missile strikes in Belgorod) are consistent with historic reporting. However, it is highly unlikely Russia can consistently maintain the level of retaliation seen on 29 and 30 Dec. UK’s Defence Intelligence confirmed Russia exhausted a substantial part of their stockpiled missile reserves in response to their landing ship being destroyed.

Aftermath of a Russian missile strike. Source: @Gerashchenko_en

 

East Kharkiv

Recent reporting online has warned of a renewed large-scale Russian offensive in Kharkiv, said to commence on 15 Jan. The reports cite massive evacuations in Kupiansk and its surrounding settlements as an indication of Russia’s intent to commit a large-scale offensive. There has been a notable rise in shelling, FAB (Soviet general-purpose air-dropped bomb) bombardment and precision strike activity in Synkivka (10km northeast of Kupiansk). 

So What?

While there is discernible evidence of Russian offensive activity in East Kharkiv, there is little evidence to support the occurrence of a massive, large-scale attack along multiple axes or a new axis opening up towards Kharkiv City from the Russian border. The primary focus in the region likely remains on Synkivka, where Russian forces, despite extensive efforts, have encountered significant resistance, resulting in a lack of tangible gains over the last two weeks. Following unsuccessful Russian ground offensives, we would normally anticipate an operational pause for regrouping and reorganising, however Russian Forces have opted for sustained pressure from indirect fires and aerial bombardment, signalling a departure from their previous tactical approaches. This is also a possible indication that Russia has overcome its paucity of conventional munitions in the short term. This is likely to be shaping activity and to create breathing room for reinforcements and recuperation prior to a renewed attempt to seize the town, whilst denying the UAF the same opportunity.

Russian offensive IVO Synkivka repelled by UAF. Source: @NOELreports

The sustained pressure from Russian forces has almost certainly been enabled by the redeployment of FAB bombs from Kherson to Kupiansk region. Until recently the approach towards Synkivka has been akin to the traditional Soviet Russian approach seen in Bakhmut, Mariupol and other towns in Ukraine: massive bombardments from artillery and MLRS to soften defences, followed by assault by ground forces. 

Russian forces almost certainly seek to replicate the success achieved using FAB bombs against UAF troops in Krynky, where after weeks of aerial bombardment they were able to reclaim control. As a result, the aerial bombing of Synkivka will highly likely continue for the next two weeks. This will allow for an operational pause for troops, before committing an offensive into Synkivka, north of Kupiansk. Russian forces will highly likely continue targeting key military infrastructure, command and logistics nodes and Ukrainian artillery with shelling and Iskander missiles to disrupt support and resupply into Synkivka from Kupiansk.

The high likelihood of encountering dense UAF minefields along the Eastern Kharkiv border would necessitate the deployment of Russian specialist engineer assets with extensive logistical and medical support. Instead, the focus on Synkivka and the tactical redeployment of FAB bombs from Kherson to the Kupiansk region suggests a more targeted and strategic approach to a specific area in support of wider strategic goals. If Russia successfully replicates the Krynky strategy, it will almost certainly become a blueprint for future operations against areas with static (or area) defences.

Footage of Russian forces using FAB bombs in Krynky, Kherson Oblast. Source: @PrometheusPm

 

Putin’s Speech

On 1 January 2024, Vladimir Putin gave his annual New Year’s address in which he stated that Russia is fighting an existential war with the West in Ukraine and asserted that Russia’s involvement in Ukraine aims to counter Western efforts to undermine Russian statehood. While acknowledging Ukraine is not inherently an enemy, Putin claimed that Western states seek to fragment Russia and are using Ukraine as a tool to achieve this goal. He suggested a changing situation on the frontlines and asserted that Russia would outpace the West in dealing with the conflict. Putin also downplayed the significance of Western aid to Ukraine, emphasising that Ukraine is already “completely destroyed”.

So What?

The portrayal of the war as a Russian struggle against the West, not Ukraine, indicates Putin’s lack of intent to negotiate sincerely with Ukraine. Instead, he appears to set conditions to convince the West to abandon Ukraine and pursue peace through negotiations, masking his expansionist goals. This tactic mirrors his previous ultimatums to the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), aimed at securing recognition of Russia’s influence in Eastern Europe. Any Western commitment to negotiations bypassing Ukraine may embolden Russia to exert control beyond Ukraine, potentially affecting other nations. Putin’s potential expansion of war aims against the West may serve to justify ongoing military buildup and offset high casualties. Despite limited gains in 2023, Putin’s claims of minimal casualties’ conflict with reports of a significant rise in Russian casualties. The justifications presented by Putin may aim to maintain domestic support for the war, even as Ukraine faces existential threats. Putin’s concluding remarks about soldiers not getting wounded for Russia to then simply surrender suggest a long-term justification for continued engagement and mobilisation against perceived Western threats.

British Minesweepers transfer to Ukraine Blocked

Turkey has blocked the passage of Ukraine’s two (2) newly acquired minehunter ships through the Turkish Straits into the Black Sea. The ships, donated by Britain, are aimed at enhancing the Ukrainian Navy’s capability to monitor and safeguard its shorelines. The obstruction is in adherence to Article 19 of the 1936 Montreux Convention which Turkey activated at the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine war and gives the authority to restrict naval transits through the Bosphorus Straits and Dardanelles to both parties. Turkey also warned non-Black Sea states at the beginning of the war to not send warships through the straits. In accordance with the Montreux Convention, warships belonging to non-belligerent parties are allowed to navigate through the straits during times of war. However, the convention specifies that the ultimate authority over the passage of all warships rests with Turkey if it deems itself at risk of being entangled in a conflict. 

So What?

The denial of naval capabilities to the Black Sea will hamper Ukraine’s ability to monitor and safeguard its shorelines and shipping lanes. The indiscriminate laying of sea mines by both Ukraine and Russia, and recent hurricanes means it’s hard to determine the true extent of mines adrift in the Black Sea. The deployment of minehunter ships is crucial not only for military purposes but also to mitigate the potential danger to civilian cargo ships, reducing the risk of accidental encounters with sea mines.

Russia will almost certainly interpret this move as a diplomatic victory, especially as minesweepers are defensive in nature, and may feel emboldened to assert more dominance in the Black Sea. 

@Gerashchenko_en quotes the 1936 Montreux Convention in blocking the transit of two British minesweepers to Ukraine. Source: @Gerashchenko_en

 

What Next?

Russia’s bombardment of Synkivka is likely to be impacted by forecasted -15C weather conditions, affecting the movement and effectiveness of both aerial and ground forces. The Ukrainian resistance in Synkivka, crucial for preventing Russian forces from crossing the Oskil River and advancing to Kupiansk, will be pivotal this winter.

The targeting of civilian infrastructure is expected to continue in the short term as Russia seeks to take out Ukraine’s DIB. This comes after President Zelensky announced plans to domestically produce a million drones in 2024.

Ukrainian forces will almost certainly continue to target Russian rear areas (as evidenced by recent strikes on Belgorod). The recent Ukrainian strikes on a railroad bridge in the vicinity of Mariupol will almost certainly disrupt the transfer of military equipment from Russia to the front lines in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. 

Unless NATO put enough pressure on Turkey to change its mind, the denial of minesweepers may force Ukraine to seek alternative means to secure its shorelines and shipping lanes.