Conflict Watchlist 2023

Ukraine: A Looming Escalation as the War Enters Its Second Year

Following months of military build-up along the Ukrainian border, Russian forces launched a full-scale invasion on 24 February 2022. The expansion of armed conflict that followed led to the highest levels of political violence recorded in a single country by ACLED in 2022. The rise of violent events was accompanied by a staggering human cost, with Ukraine also ranking as the country with the highest reported fatality count last year.1Fatality numbers are frequently the most biased and poorly reported component of conflict data; they can vary considerably and are often the subject of debate given the strategic incentives to over- or underestimate these numbers, as well as the significant logistical difficulties in collecting accurate data, among other factors. Clionadh Raleigh et al., ‘Boko Haram vs. al-Shabab: What do we know about their patterns of violence?’, Washington Post, 2 October 2017

After an initial rapid advance, Russian forces managed to capture the eponymous capital of the Kherson region in the south but encountered stiff resistance in the northern and northeastern regions of Ukraine. Failing to take the capital city of Kyiv while suffering losses and encountering problems maintaining resupply routes in northern Ukraine and Belarus, Russian forces retreated from the northern regions of Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy in April. Following the retreat, Russia redeployed its forces to the southern and eastern regions of Ukraine and increased its focus on occupying the entirety of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where armed conflict has been ongoing since 2014. Here, Russian offensive operations were supported by Russian-led Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Militias, which were officially incorporated into the Russian army on 31 December, and the Russian private military company Wagner Group. 

As Russian forces were running out of offensive potential, Ukraine launched counter-offensive operations in the eastern region of Kharkiv and the southern region of Kherson at the end of August. In the Kharkiv region, Ukrainian forces broke through Russian defenses and liberated most of the region by mid-September. The Kharkiv counter-offensive allowed Ukrainian troops to close in on the administrative border with the Luhansk region and launch offensive operations towards Kreminna and Svatove. In the Kherson region, Ukraine targeted Russian supply lines across the Dnipro river, creating a risk of isolation for Russian troops and forcing them to abandon the city of Kherson and retreat to the eastern bank of Dnipro in November. The Ukrainian government’s efforts were also supported by the underground partisan movement targeting Russian troops, supply lines, Russian-appointed officials, and suspected collaborators in the occupied territories. 

Russian military aggression against Ukraine had a devastating effect on the country’s civilian population. Since 24 February, almost eight million civilians have fled Ukraine to seek protection in countries across Europe, and over six million people have been internally displaced.2United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Ukraine Emergency’, November 2022 Russian shelling, missile, and air and drone strikes targeting civilians resulted in thousands of reported fatalities. Starting in October, Russian forces began targeting critical infrastructure across Ukraine with missile and drone strikes, knocking out power across the country and leading to disruptions in electricity, water, and heating supply, as well as cellphone service ahead of winter. The de-occupation of territories in Ukraine, particularly the Kyiv and the Kharkiv regions, also revealed mass atrocities allegedly committed by Russian forces – including looting, abduction, rape, torture, and executions – amounting to over a thousand additional civilian fatalities in 2022. As independent media and other observers have little access to regions of Ukraine that remain under Russian occupation, the real number of civilians killed by Russian forces and the extent of violence against civilians in Ukraine could be much higher. 

What to watch for in 2023

While battles may have slightly subsided during the winter period, they are likely to intensify again in the spring as both Ukraine and Russia are reportedly preparing new military campaigns.3Oleksandr Kunytskyi, ‘Budanov: Ukraine is planning a major offensive in the spring’, Deutsche Welle, 4 January 2023; Evgeny Legalov, ‘Nine months of the “three-day” war. Russia is preparing an attack on Kyiv?’, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 16 December 2022 Ukraine will likely continue its counter-offensive in the Luhansk region and launch new offensive operations in the southern regions of Zaporizhia and Kherson in 2023. Ukrainian advances in the Zaporizhia region may aggravate the situation around the Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Plant in Enerhodar, which has been mined by the Russian forces controlling it,4Ukrinform, ‘The Russian army announced that it had mined the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and was ready to blow it up’, 8 August 2022 increasing the risk of a nuclear disaster. The success of Ukrainian offensive operations largely depends on the provision of international military aid, with Ukrainian officials requesting more weapons and ammunition from Western allies.5Illia Ponomarenko, ‘As Battle of Bakhmut nears culmination, Ukraine’s artillery gasps for more ammo’, Kyiv Independent, 5 January 2023; Jamey Keaten and John Leicester, ‘Ukraine president again presses West for advanced weapons’, Associated Press, 12 December 2022 Ukrainian government forces and underground partisan groups are also likely to continue or intensify attacks in Russia’s deep rear areas, targeting Russian military personnel, ammunition depots, and communication lines, with a high probability of continued strikes on Russian territory. 

Russia will likely maintain focus on the Donetsk region for its offensive operations, particularly in the area of Bakhmut, but also Avdiivka, Marinka, and Vuhledar. Russian forces may also attempt an offensive in the Zaporizhia region to reduce Ukrainian long-range strikes in the area. Russia’s continued military build-up in Belarus could indicate plans for a renewed offensive on Kyiv; however, this currently remains unlikely.6Kateryna Stepanenko et al., ‘Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment’, Institute for the Study of War, 23 December 2022 To secure its future military operations in Ukraine, Russia will likely be attempting to mobilize additional troops in 2023.7Karolina Hird et al., ‘Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment’, Institute for the Study of War, 25 January 2023; Ülviyya Amuyeva, ‘On January 1, Putin’s decree on increasing the number of armed forces came into force’, Anadolu Agency, 1 January 2023 Russia is also likely seeking to strike new weapon deals with other countries. Iran is expected to remain the most notable external provider of weapons, having already reportedly sent Russia thousands of drones, and may agree to send missiles in the future.8Julian Borger, Peter Beaumont and Dan Sabbagh, ‘Iran has not sent ballistic missiles to Russia so far, says Ukrainian official’, The Guardian, 6 December 2022 North Korea, which reportedly supplied the Wagner Group with weapons last year,9Voice of America, ‘US Says Russia’s Wagner Group Bought North Korean Weapons for Ukraine War’, 22 December 2022 may also emerge as a more important weapons supplier. There remains the risk that if it fails to buy and produce enough arms, Russia will start using its arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons; however, this risk remains low as it is unlikely to help Russia achieve its goals.10John Haltiwanger and Charles R. Davis, ‘Putin’s nuclear threats are stirring fears of a nightmare scenario,’ Insider, 24 December 2022 

Should Ukraine step up offensive operations in spring 2023, Russia may also stage new provocations, similar to the explosion at a prison in Olenivka, attacks on nuclear power plants, or disruption of grain exports from Ukraine, with the hope that Ukraine’s international partners will compel Ukraine to resume negotiations. While negotiations between Ukraine and Russia are unlikely to effectively end the war at this stage, they may benefit Russia by giving it the chance to regroup and open dialogue on potential Ukrainian territorial concessions.11Frederick W. Kagan, ‘The case against negotiations with Russia’, Institute for the Study of War, 17 November 2022 

Civilians in Ukraine remain at high risk of continued targeting by Russian forces. Russia continues to launch missile and drone strikes at critical infrastructure across the country. However, as the weather gets warmer and civilians become less dependent on heating and power supply, these strikes may be redirected toward other targets. Regardless of the availability of missiles and drones, Russia will likely continue the intense shelling of civilian infrastructure in the frontline areas that, to date, has caused the majority of reported civilian fatalities. Large parts of the Ukrainian territory also remain contaminated by mines, unexploded ordnance, and explosive remnants of war – especially in the recently de-occupied regions – which may lead to further civilian casualties as more people begin returning to their homes. 

Russian oppression of the civilian population in the occupied regions is also likely to continue amid the ongoing partisan movement, and Russia’s forced displacement of residents in occupied areas. Should Russia occupy new territories in 2023, more civilians will be at risk of war crimes, including abductions, forced displacement, forced mobilization, torture, sexual violence, and execution.