On 19 December, President Vladimir Putin met with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk, Belarus. This meeting comes on the heels of increasing chatter regarding the potential of a Russian winter offensive. On 15 December, The Economist published an interview with Valery Zaluzhny, commander of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU), in which Zaluzhny stated that Ukraine expects another Russian offensive as soon as late January 2023 and that the assault “may start not in Donbas, but in the direction of Kyiv, from Belarus.”
Russia and Belarus have recently held joint exercises in Belarus. Throughout the conflict, Belarus has allowed Russia to use its territory to attack Ukraine and it has provided logistical and operational support to Russian troops. But it has drawn the line around direct intervention. With the Russians having incurred sizable personnel and equipment losses, the question remains whether or not Belarus will be coerced or coopted into contributing troops toward the Russian war effort.
- Both Russia and Ukraine have reasons to play up the potential reopening of the northern front (an axis of attack from Belarus toward Kyiv).
- For Moscow, the meeting is meant to signal to Europe and the U.S. that the war is far from over and that expensive, long-term support for Ukraine will be required. The Minsk visit is also meant to demonstrate to the Russian people that Russia still has allies and that Putin is doing what he can to ensure victory.
- Kyiv has an incentive to leverage the potential risk of another ground assault on Kyiv for an improvement in the quality and quantity of Western arms.
- We do see a credible threat of Belarus joining the fighting or Russia using Belarus to open a northern axis into Ukraine (as it did in Feb 2022) in the coming months. So far, there has been no overt indication that Lukashenko has acquiesced to committing Belarussian troops to the fight and U.S. National Security officials do not yet view this threat as imminent.
- Russia has the intent and will soon have the manpower to mount another offensive with approximately 200,000 newly mobilized troops nearing the completion of training. The timing will coincide with the freezing of the soil in Ukraine which will make it easier for tracked vehicles to move off-road.
- We expect both Russia and Ukraine to attempt offensives before spring 2023.
- A fresh Russian attack on Kyiv from Belarus is unlikely to succeed. Though these prospects for success do not preclude another invasion from the north. Russia may deploy troops to northern Ukraine to divert Ukrainian forces away from the frontlines in Donetsk, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia regions.
- Should the decision be made to invade Ukraine from Belarus, we assess that it will take at least several more weeks for the Russians to pre-position sufficient personnel and equipment for any major offensive in the north.
- Dig in and prevent Ukraine from advancing south into Zaporizhzhia towards Melitopol.
- Use its newly generated forces to attempt to capture the remaining parts of Donetsk oblast.
- Continue its terror campaign on Ukrainian critical infrastructure.
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