Experts point out that the “decisive strategic actions” of the Russian Federation in 2023 may manifest itself in several possible courses of action, which are not mutually exclusive.
Scenario 1: major Russian offensive in the Luhansk region
Russian forces may try to launch a major offensive in the Lugansk region. According to the ISW material, the complete capture of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions remains the official military goals of the Kremlin and is among the most achievable – albeit very difficult – tasks for Russia, given that from a logistical point of view, the Donetsk and Luhansk regions “are territories that the Russian Federation is easier capture everything.”
Since 2022, Russian forces have been deploying additional forces to the Luhansk region and carrying out other important activities that ISW assesses can support an offensive operation in this area. Experts continue to believe that Russian troops are unlikely to carry out an offensive in southern Ukraine in the Kherson or Zaporozhye regions. The Dnieper River divides the front line in the Kherson region and is a serious obstacle to maneuver.
Russian echeloned field fortifications in the Kherson region and extensive mining operations in the Zaporozhye region indicate that Russian forces are prioritizing defensive operations in both areas, the publication says.
Scenario 2: Russian defensive operation to defeat and use the Ukrainian counter-offensive
At the end of 2022, the Russian Federation transferred significant military units from the southern (Kherson) direction to the Lugansk region and created field fortifications in the Lugansk region, as well as in the Russian Belgorod and Kursk regions. Analysts are seeing many signs that Ukrainian forces are looking to launch a counter-offensive in 2023, which is no secret. Russia seeks to secure the occupied territories in Donbas and avoid another significant defeat, such as a debacle in the Kharkiv region or withdrawal from Kherson. These were both momentous events that undermined Russian morale, as well as a perception of the ability of the Russian troops to achieve their larger goals of, as the Kremlin says, the complete “demilitarization and denazification” of Ukraine.
Russian forces may try to successfully repel the counteroffensive of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and deprive Ukraine of the initiative by destroying a significant part of the mechanized forces of the Ukrainian army. If the Russian Federation is successful in such actions, analysts say, it could then allow Russian forces to develop a counter-offensive to exploit the disorganized and depleted Ukrainian forces.
An alternative to a major offensive operation of the Russian Federation
The ISW added that Russian troops could be preparing for a major offensive operation or, alternatively, for larger “disruptive attacks”, apart from a general offensive operation.
Indicators can also support a counterattack to take advantage of the UAF counteroffensive that Russian forces hope to stop.
Scenario about a repeated attack from Belarus
The most dangerous course of action for a Russian offensive into northern Ukraine currently remains unlikely, according to ISW analysts. However, the Kremlin provides planning flexibility and is likely to expand the Russian military presence in Belarus in the period leading up to a planned major exercise (which could possibly support a military operation) in September 2023.
The experts added that the Kremlin is likely to send additional forces to Belarus as part of the Zapad-2023 and Union Shield-2023 exercises, which are expected to take place in September 2023.