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ISW: Russian offensives intensify ahead of Russia’s 2024 elections as Ukraine fortifies defenses

Amid challenging weather, Russian forces launch offensives to seize initiative before Russia’s 2024 elections. Ukraine fortifies defenses, remaining open to future counteroffensives, maintaining strategic flexibility, ISW says.

The US-based think tank Institute for the Study of War (ISW) says Russian forces seek to regain initiative in harsh conditions before Russia’s 2024 elections, while Ukraine bolsters defenses, preserving options for future offensives.

“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,” ISW wrote in its daily Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment on 9 December.

Russian forces presently conduct offensives across Ukraine’s frontlines, with a focus on areas such as the Kharkiv-Luhansk Oblast border, Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and ongoing ground attacks in western Zaporizhzhia Oblast, as confirmed by Ukrainian military sources.

The ongoing intensity of conflict along Ukraine’s entire frontline aligns with ISW’s long-standing assessment that Russian forces have been working to regain theater-level initiative since at least mid-November 2023.

Recent statements from Ukrainian military officials indicate that Russian forces have indeed seized the initiative along the Kharkiv-Luhansk Oblast border, near Bakhmut, and the Avdiivka-Donetsk City axis. However, Ukrainian forces continue to maintain the initiative in strategic areas of southern Ukraine, demonstrated by ongoing Ukrainian counterattacks in western Zaporizhzhia Oblast and a notably larger Ukrainian presence in the east bank of Kherson Oblast.

Notably, Russian forces have actively pursued an initiative and offensive actions during the challenging fall weather, consistent with ISW’s view that adverse conditions may slow, but not halt, frontline combat. This decision likely stems from Ukrainian forces’ prior success in limiting Russian initiatives during the more favorable summer conditions.

Russian apprehension regarding an anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive, which predates the actual onset in early June 2023, compelled Russian forces to adopt a defensive stance in southern Ukraine during the first half of 2023. This defensive posture hindered their ability to launch offensives in the southern region during that timeframe.

In recent weeks, Russian forces have persisted with offensive actions along the Kharkiv-Luhansk Oblast border, enduring challenging conditions such as snow, frost, and mud in eastern Ukraine. Additionally, they have maintained continuous ground attacks in western Zaporizhzhia Oblast, despite the presence of muddy terrain and strong winds across most of the southern region.

Significant portions of the frontline, especially in northeastern and eastern Ukraine, are entering a hard freeze phase as temperatures plummet and muddy terrain solidifies. This transition will enable mechanized operations for both Russian and Ukrainian forces.

Russian forces’ November 2023 offensives, during harsh conditions, show the urgency to maintain the initiative before the March 2024 Russian elections. This may have disrupted Ukrainian counteroffensives, although Kyiv had scaled back its plans earlier.

The outcome of current Russian offensives for future significant gains remains uncertain. Harsh weather likely hampers Russian progress, raises casualties, and affects soldier morale. Russian losses match their force generation, suggesting limited preparations for 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,” ISW noted.

Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy and Commander-in-Chief General Zaluzhnyi signaled a plan to enhance fortifications, particularly in areas where Russian forces are on the offensive. These defensive positions should bolster Ukraine’s ability to fend off Russian attacks more effectively and with fewer casualties.

Moreover, these Ukrainian tactical defensive positions can serve as launchpads for future offensive operations at the discretion of Ukrainian forces, allowing flexibility in initiating offensives when and where they decide.

“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 counteroffensive,” ISW concludes.

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