Operational / Strategic Military

  • There are an increasing number of reports indicating that the Russian Federation Armed Forces (RFAF) are deploying a larger number of tactical groupings to the northern axis of operations, near Kreminna. Ukrainian military intelligence has reported that reinforcements have been deployed to the area, including the ‘elite’ RFAF 76th Guards Air Assault Division (76 GAAD). The best/latest Russian equipment has also been observed operating in this area over the last two weeks, including the previously reported T-90M tanks and the rarely-observed BMPT tank-support vehicle. 

Video reportedly showing RFAF VDV elements reacting to a UAF ambush near Kreminna in late January 2023. Source: @Danspiun

  • There has been little activity of any significance in Belarus over the last week. Joint training of the Regional Group of Forces has continued; however, there has been no reporting to indicate that the RFAF have pushed additional units into Belarus, nor have they formed operational combined-arms groupings which would be required to launch a ground invasion of Ukraine. The Ukrainian military has stated that they believe there is no imminent threat from Belarusian forces, or Russian forces in Belarus, but also that the UAF must remain ready should a threat arise from this area. The RFAF and Belarusian Armed Forces (BAF) plan on conducting two major joint exercises this year – UNION SHIELD in September, and an off-cycle ZAPAD exercise. Finally, Belarus has declared that it is now able to independently operate Iskander short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) systems. 

Tweet covering the reported ability of the BAF to now operate Iskander systems independently from the RFAF. Source: @gahamalian

So What?

  • The presence of the (previously heavily degraded) 76 GAAD on the Svatove-Kreminna axis is likely to be an indicator of RFAF intent to launch offensive operations in the region. In conjunction with the major kinetic activity in Bakhmut, and to lesser extend Vuhledar, this is likely intended to stretch UAF defensive units by creating multiple threats along different axes which Russia can use to probe for opportunity. It is a realistic possibility that other rehabilitated RFAF units will begin to mass on the Svatove-Kreminna axis prior to the commencement of a major counter-offensive to push the UAF back towards the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblast borders, in line with the probable direction from President Putin that the area must be seized and occupied. 
  • It is almost certain that the RFAF does not currently have the combat power massed in Belarus to open another front in western Ukraine. The limited number of Russian forces and almost certain unwillingness of President Lukashenko to directly involve his forces in combat prevents a serious threat to Ukrainian territory along their shared border, including another attempt to isolate Kyiv.
  • It remains likely that the ongoing Russian skirmishes/reconnaissance in Zaporizhia Oblast are intended to probe the Ukrainian defensive line and fix UAF defenders in the area to prevent their redeployment north in the event of a Russian renewed offensive to seize the areas of Luhansk Oblast which are under Ukrainian control.
  • The independent operational SRBM capability is unlikely to be used by the BAF to strike targets in western Ukraine as the direct participation in hostilities would have significant repercussions for Lukashenko and his regime. It is highly likley that Russian Iskander requirements outstrip their supply levels, and therefore it is unlikely that the BAF will receive a large number of ammunition for their firing units – therefore it is probable that this announcement is part of an information operation to display unity and co-operation between the RFAF and BAF, and to reassure the Belarusian public that the BAF can defend against the alleged ‘NATO Aggressors’. 

Political

  • A new round of United States (US) military aid for Ukraine has been reported, although there are no official statements regarding the contents of the reportedly $2 billion aid package. Two unnamed US officials spoke with Reuters news agency and stated that the package would contain Ground Launched Small Diameter Bombs (GLSDB). These munitions can be fired from existing High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) and Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS), and reportedly have a range of up to 150km against static targets, and the ‘Laser’ variant can hit moving targets out to 60km.  

Tweet containing a GLSDB promotional video from the manufacturers, Saab and Boeing. Source: @Defense_Talks

  • Unconfirmed reporting suggests that further measures for mobilisation are underway in Russia. One report states that a university in Tomsk has created a ‘mobilisation station’ for staff and students. Additional reporting indicates a law which has been passed to the Russian State Duma requiring exit visas to leave the Russian Federation, which will come into effect on 1 March 2023. The Ukrainian General Staff have also repeatedly made statements in 2023 saying that Russia is preparing for another wave of mass mobilisation.

Post by British Defence Intelligence reporting on Russian mobilisation efforts. Source: @DefenceHQ

  • On Saturday 28 January 2023, there were a series of reported strikes against Iranian weapons manufacturing and storage facilities. Reporting indicates that Israel was behind these strikes and used unmanned aerial vehicles (possibly the large Heron-TP drone) to conduct them. Unnamed US intelligence officials told the New York Times that the strikes were carried out by Israel and were probably in response to Iranian plans to attack Israeli nationals in Cyprus and Turkey in 2022.

Tweet claiming to identify the targets of Israeli strikes in Iran. Source: @Danale

  • There is a planned European Union (EU)-Ukraine summit to be held in Kyiv today (3 February 2023), following the 2 February 2023 initial meeting of the European Commission with the Government of Ukraine. The 24th EU-Ukraine Summit is the first since the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. The summit is officially slated to cover the following topics:
    • Ukraine’s European path and the accession process.
    • The EU’s response to Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.
    • Ukraine’s initiatives for just peace and accountability.
    • Cooperation on issues of reconstruction and relief and in the areas of energy and connectivity.
    • Global food security.

So What?

  • If the proposed US aid package for Ukraine does contain GLSDB, then this will add a much-needed capability to complement existing precision-strike options. The additional ~58km range over currently supplied HIMARS munitions (likely M26, M26A1, M26A2, M30, XM31) will increase targeting opportunities for the UAF.
  • The additional range allows the UAF to strike approximately 82% of occupied Ukraine, including just over 30% of the Crimean Peninsula. This increased range adds several significant possible targets, including air bases, rail heads, logistics, and command structures in places such as Luhansk city, Taganrog (in the Russian Federation), and the Dzhankoy air base in Crimea.
  • It is likely that a small stock of these munitions is available to be sent as soon as the package is finalised, and also likely that more will need to be produced to meet the requirements whilst maintaining US inventory for their own requirements. It is also likely that even the announcement of the intent to provide the capability will have an impact on RFAF planning and activity. It is highly likely that the RFAF will need to disperse, relocate, and conceal previously overt (and out-of-range) High Value Targets (HVTs) to mitigate against the new threat. This will have second order effects that include; 
    • Disruption of Command and Control (C2) through displacement of headquarters.
    • An increased logistics burden from having to move ammunition storage and logistics resupply areas further from the Forward Edge of the Battle Area (FEBA)
    • Relocation of attack aviation and aircraft further to the rear which will increase the time it takes for Close Air Support (CAS) to arrive on target. 
  • RFAF Air Defences (AD) have struggled to successfully intercept HIMARS munitions, and there is nothing to indicate that they will have greater success against GLSDB. The increased range and more broad targeting opportunities will also create a greater requirement for Russian AD presence. This will stretch limited AD assets further and thin the Anti-Access and Area Denial (A2AD) bubble across the front lines, which may create additional opportunities for UAF CAS strikes in support of ground operations. 
  • Putin and the RFAF are likely to phrase the planned provision of GLSDBs as another ‘escalation’, and in turn use it to further militarise the Russian economy, industry, and population – potentially as part of condition-setting for another more overt round of mobilisation. 
  • As the RFAF likely prepares for a major offensive action as winter turns to spring, the Russian government is likely to continue preparations for further mobilisation. A scaling-up of the ‘partial mobilisation’ conducted in 2022 is likely to occur as Russia will be required to train new personnel for both Battlefield Casualty Replacements (BCRs) and to staff newly created units for the campaign in Ukraine. It is a realistic possibility that joint training bases in Belarus will continue to be used to train mobilised Russian personnel, with instructors taken from veteran/degraded units that have already taken part in the operation to provide insight from their combat experience fighting the UAF. Full mobilisation of the Russian population and economy is unlikely in the short term, as Putin is likely to wish to avoid civil unrest and a greater dissatisfaction with the ‘Special Military Operation’. 
  • Further Russian mobilisation is almost inevitable following the highly attritional battles fought over the winter, particularly around Donetsk city. Mobilised personnel enrolled in 2022 are likely to finish their training shortly and subsequently deploy to eastern Ukraine in preparation for a new offensive. It is likely that Russia believes the number of soldiers mobilised thus far will be sufficient to begin the offensive, and more recently mobilised soldiers will train and prepare to deploy before the culmination of this likely attack. This would permit the RFAF to reconstitute reserves prior to any second phase of the operation, and to have additional BCRs in place to rehabilitate depleted units and maintain any momentum gained. 
  • Whilst the Israeli strikes in Iran are unlikely to be directly attributable to Russo-Iranian weapons deals and technology transfer, they will likely disrupt future provision of both Shahed-136 suicide drones, as well as any potential deliveries of Iranian SRBMs. It is highly unlikely that Israel will admit to deliberately targeting weapons which are of use to the RFAF out of concern over how it will affect relations with the Russian Federation. 
  • Ukraine’s EU and European Commission meetings are likely to further the agenda of accession and incense Putin as he is likely to frame it as a further NATO/EU move to the east, closer to his borders. Previous international talks about Western assistance to Ukraine have prompted retaliatory strikes against Ukrainian civilian and dual-purpose targets, particularly electrical infrastructure.

What Next?

It is a realistic possibility that the RFAF will launch another major offensive action in the Kreminna area towards Lyman in late February 2023 (one year on from the initial strikes/invasion) or early March. It is a realistic possibility that the offensive will occur concurrently to an increase in probing attacks and reconnaissance activity on the Russo-Ukrainian border in the north, as well as in Kherson and Zaporizhia, to pull UAF defenders from the Kreminna axis. It is unlikely that the deployment of 76 GAAD is part of a deception plan, as the movement of reconstituted units is difficult to conceal; however, their presence in combat on this front is likely to lead to a decrease in combat-effectiveness prior to the commencement of any planned major offensive. It is likely that the RFAF main effort will remain seizing and holding the entirety of the Donbas (Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts) – and it is a realistic possibility that Slovyansk and Kramatorsk will be the objectives for the first phase. The Russian leadership and military high command likely continue to overestimate their capability, and it is a realistic possibility that these objectives will not be met in the short term (1-3 months).

It remains unlikely that Russian and Belarusian forces will invade western Ukraine in the short term. It is likely that preparatory activity is underway in Belarus to set conditions to train additional RFAF personnel mobilised in the short to medium term (out to six months). It is highly unlikely that the BAF will strike targets in Ukraine using their newly acquired independent Iskander systems; however, the possibility that Russia will coerce Lukashenko into limited military involvement cannot be ruled out. 

It is highly likely that the UAF will seek to expedite future aid packages containing long-range precision-strike munitions to disrupt RFAF shaping activity before a new large-scale offensive occurs. Attacks on RFAF logistics, C2, and troop/equipment concentrations will likely increase as reporting of Russian offensive preparations starts to emerge.  

As tension between Israel and Iranian-backed militia elements in Gaza and other areas continue to ramp up, further strikes against military targets in Iran are likely to occur – with the useful second order effect of further interrupting the Iranian supply of weapons to Russia.

It is likely that over the weekend of 4/5 February 2023 Russia will launch large-scale strikes against Ukrainian cities and infrastructure. The size and composition of these strikes will depend on RFAF missile and munition stocks but are likely to include the use of Air-Launched Cruise Missiles, Shahed-136 suicide drones, and possibly short-range ballistic missiles. If the EU-Ukraine summit leads to any major announcements, then it is a realistic possibility that the Russian Khinzal hypersonic weapon will be used, despite low numbers likely available. Hypersonic weapons cannot be intercepted by AD systems and can strike areas with little warning – with the potential to cause significant loss of life before people manage to reach shelter.

TOURNAI, BELGIUM - FEBRUARY 02: German-made Leopard 1 tanks, which were removed from the Belgian army's inventory years ago and sold to a defense industry company are seen at a warehouse in Tournai, Belgium on February 02, 2023. The Belgian government is considering buying back the tanks from the Belgian defense company OIP Land Systems at a