Operational Update – Russian Federation Armed Forces (RFAF) Spring Offensive assessment.

So far in this conflict, the Kremlin and President Putin have held unrealistic beliefs about the capability of their own forces and the will and competence of Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) defences. It is likely that political direction is driving military objectives and subsequently reducing their effectiveness. Symbolic timelines (such as the first anniversary of the ground offensive on 24 February) may force the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD) to launch operations for which they are inadequately prepared, reducing their likelihood of success. Another factor for a premature Russian MoD offensive is likely wanting to start prior to the arrival of more Western weapon systems (such as new Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) and long-range precision strike capability) in Ukraine.

The past two reporting periods have seen elements of three divisions move into the Luhansk Oblast;

  • 4th Guards Tank Division – based in Svatove.
  • 41st Combined Arms Army – based in Staroblisk.
  • 20th Combined Arms Army – based in Danylivka.

The presence of these Divisions does show RFAF intent on this axis; however, no significant offensive action has been observed. It is highly likely that the RFAF are still within the shaping phase of offensive operations in the Luhansk Oblast as seen with increased shelling and movement of troops towards the Forward Line of Enemy Troops (FLET). It is however highly likely to be difficult to maintain logistic nodes, Divisional Headquarters, and concentrations of troops. UAF Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and other Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) assets will continue to identify and target RFAF troops and assets with HIMARs and artillery. This has almost certainly had a hugely detrimental effect on armoured vehicles and tanks with the United Kingdom (UK) MoD reporting Russia has depleted its combat effectiveness by 40 percent. Whilst the RFAF has mobilised forces since September 2022, it has been widely reported that Russian convicts have not integrated into units and are consistently used and will continue to be used in human waves on UAF defences. The aim of this tactic is to exhaust UAF defenders and identify defensive positions for subsequent destruction by better equipped and trained RFAF and contractor forces.

The main effort will highly likely continue to be in the Donetsk Oblast for the next week, particularly around Bakhmut as the encirclement continues. However, progress is slow, and the war of attrition continues for both sides.

Strategic Military

  • This reporting period saw a NATO meeting of Defence Ministers in Brussels during 14 – 15 February. NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, warned of the West running out of ammunition, namely 155mm artillery rounds. Stoltenberg stated that the Russian Spring Offensive had already begun and as a result, the UAF were consuming more rounds than could be realistically resupplied. As a result, production is set to increase across NATO allied countries, as well as training the UAF on more efficient precision guided missiles and munitions such as HIMARs and Excalibur. Of note, there has not been any further publicised discussion on the provision of fighter jets.
  • President Putin and President Lukashenko are due to meet in Moscow on 17 February. On 16 February, Lukashenko reiterated his support to Putin but stated that Belarus has no intention of being directly involved in the conflict. This would only change should Belarus experience Ukrainian aggression.

NATO Allies Defence Ministers meeting during 14 - 15 February, where agreements to ramp up munition production and provide training to UAF soldiers ahead of the Russian Spring Offensive took place. Source: @NATO

So What?

  • Approximated statistics state that the UAF are using 5,000 rounds per day, in comparison to RFAF 20,000 per day. Comparisons have been drawn that smaller European countries would use 5,000 a year during peacetime and therefore it is almost certain that stockpiles across NATO allies are critically low. A strategic level effort to ensure production and logistics is underway to maintain UAF defences against an RFAF spring offensive. It is likely that the drive to ensure combat effectiveness of UAF artillery assets will continue regardless of the arrival of the Challenger 2, Abrams, and Leopard MBTs promised in January 2023. However, prompt arrival of Western equipment would relieve the artillery munitions burden and allow the UAF the flexibility to initiate counter-offensives. Additionally, the training of UAF on Precision Guided Munitions and Missiles will allow for a “less is more” approach, coupled with accurate and well-considered targeting of RFAF logistic nodes in depth will highly likely reduce the combat effectiveness of poorly trained and low morale Russian troops.
  • It is likely that Putin and Lukashenko’s meeting has been scheduled ahead of the 24 February anniversary of the invasion to give the impression that RFAF troops or assets deployed in Belarus are a threat to Ukraine. Although there has been a Belarusian commitment to allow RFAF training, there have been no indicators and warnings to suggest the RFAF have staged additional forces in Belarus for future operations. Lukashenko has reiterated his red-lines regarding the conflict likely to placate his citizens that they will not be mobilised nor deployed for offensive activity in Ukraine.

Political

  • The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported on 7 February that Gazprom, the Russian state-owned energy company, was reportedly given permission to form its own private security company by Russian Prime Minister, Mikhail Mishustin.
  • On 13 February, the United States (US) and France formally advised their citizens to leave Russia and Belarus respectively. Although this is not the first warning governments have issued to their citizens or those possessing dual nationality to leave. The timing is relevant to the proximity of the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As of 10 February, Poland only has two out of six border crossing points open with Belarus; the day before a Polish activist and journalist based in Belarus, Andrzej Poczobut, was given an eight-year sentence in a labour camp by a court in Minsk for allegedly threatening national security.

Russian Prime Minister, Mikhail Mishustin, in the Russian Parliament announcing the order which gives permission for Gazprom to form its own private security company. Source: @statecraftdaily

So What?

  • The permission to form the security company came in the form of legislature, and authorised Gazprom (the largest producer of natural gas in 2021) subsidiary Gazprom Nafta (a global oil producer and refiner) a 70 percent stake in its own private security company (PSCs) under a Russian law on the safety of fuel and energy complex assets. Delivering via pre-existing laws the establishment of a state-owned Critical National Infrastructure (CNI) security company is almost certainly a legitimate means to protect state-owned assets. These assets are a powerbase for Russian political negotiations with both friendly neighbours reliant on Russian energy, and Western/NATO countries which previously were heavily reliant on its supply. It is possible that Gazprom security personnel would therefore be ‘deployed’ outside of Russia to protect assets such as pipelines, oil depots, and refineries and would be forced upon recipient countries as a condition of business. This is of concern; it would enable Russian security personnel to conduct activity (likely clandestine espionage or subversion) in Russian countries of interest.
  • The legitimisation of PSCs is highly likely an attempt to undermine Private Military Companies (PMCs), primarily Wagner, given the publicly contentious relationship between its owner, Prigozhin, and the Russian MoD during the Ukraine conflict. It is also another likely means to prevent PMCs/Wagner from seeking legitimacy or recognition, which currently, is not allowed under Russian law. As such, a legitimate state-owned PSC would be a competitor and a recipient of state-funding and assets. Whilst Wagner is a significant contributor to Russian combat effectiveness in Ukraine, it is currently unlikely that a force participating in the conflict associated to Gazprom will be seen in Ukraine or elsewhere outside of Russia for the next 12 months. It is also likely that the creation of CNI-aligned PSCs is financially motivated and provides another opportunity for corrupt individuals to misappropriate state funds.
  • The possible next round of mobilisation and the imminent offensive will likely increase harassment, intimidation, and wrongful detentions for citizens of Western countries (particularly those who are a part of NATO) in Russia. According to the US State Department, the US Embassy in Moscow operates under intense restrictions and would be unable to provide support to its citizens should they require it. The US reiterated its concern for dual US/Russian citizens, warning that they are at risk of mobilisation. Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, responded to the US warning, stating that while a new wave of mobilisation was not planned in Russia, dual citizens in Russia are “first and foremost, Russian.” Peskov’s statement, thus, indicated that the Kremlin would highly likely consider recruiting or mobilising dual citizens.It is likely that the mobilisation of dual nationals would contribute to Russian information operations, like that of Westerners travelling to Ukraine to fight alongside UAF; however, in this instance they would be under duress rather than voluntary.
  • There has been speculation during the reporting period that mobilisation efforts, which were assessed to have begun in January 2023, have reportedly not occurred. Firstly, it is likely that direction from Putin to the Russian MoD to resolve systematic failures within the paper-based mobilisation systems seen in September 2022 has caused a delay. Secondly, reports indicate that the Russian MoD is mobilising by stealth and the second mobilisation will be primarily based on convicts (denying Wagner recruitment from Russian prisons), detractors, and dual citizens. It is likely that those who attempt to flee Russia, or are outspoken in Belarus, are at risk of mobilisation as a punishment and as a warning to ensure compliance by the rest of the population. Similarly, the announcement by the West to ensure dual citizens leave is likely indicative that an imminent offensive or significant escalation such as closing of the borders will occur in the short-term (one to four weeks). It is highly unlikely that Western governments will be able to extract their citizens should a closure of Russia’s borders occur.

What next?

It is likely over the next reporting period, that requests for fighter jets from both Ukraine and its supporters will continue; yet will likely remain a controversial issue and thus unlikely to be provided in the short to medium term (one to six months). The commitment to training, maintenance, and logistic requirements almost certainly are too great to implement in the short term; particularly whilst the political will may also be lacking. Additionally, Western governments are likely concerned as to the rate of fighter jet attrition and Putin’s red lines being crossed.

As the Russian Spring Offensive continues within the shaping phase of intense shelling, it is highly likely that UAF will remain for the most part in established fortifications in defence until Western MBTs and better weather allow for counter-offensives to begin. Intense fighting in the Donetsk Oblast (the current assessed main effort until the offensive begins in the Luhansk Oblast) and an increase in shelling in the Luhansk Oblast are still likely to be underwhelming for the RFAF regarding territorial change and this will remain a war of attrition, as already seen throughout the conflict so far.

BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - FEBRUARY 14: US Defence Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III (2nd R), NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (L) and Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov (R) attend the Ukraine defence contact group meeting at NATO headquarters during the first of two days of defence ministers' meetings on February 14, 2023 in Brussels, Belgium.