During the week of December 11 – December 18, Russian soldiers failed to make significant gains despite continued attacks on Ukrainian settlements, which damaged critical infrastructure and injured and killed civilians and members of Ukraine’s defense forces.
While the Russians concentrated their offensive actions on the Bakhmut and Avdiivka fronts and tried to regain lost positions on the Lyman front, Ukrainian soldiers conducted strikes on concentrations of occupying forces and their equipment near Melitopol and other settlements in Zaporizhzhia Oblast.
Russian forces continue strengthening their lines of defense between Kherson Oblast and Crimea and improving the protection of the North Crimean Canal. New fortifications and so-called “dragon’s teeth” (concrete anti-tank fortifications) were seen not only in the north and western part of Crimea, but also in Mariupol, Donetsk Oblast, and Melitopol. New posters with advertisements to join Wagner group have appeared in occupied Simferopol and Yevpatoriia, Crimea, while resistance continues on the peninsula and in occupied areas of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts. New FSB groups have arrived in the occupied south to search for members of the Ukrainian underground.
Throughout the temporarily occupied territories, Russian forces have strengthened “filtration” measures on checkpoints and activated forced mobilization in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. To replenish losses and re-staff units, 28 women were drafted by the District Military Commissariat in Donetsk and sent for training. In addition, there are increasing reports of forced “passportization,” and attempts to transfer transactions to Russian rubles, amid abductions and hostage-taking in occupied areas. According to Ukrainian government estimates, the country needs US$1 billion for the rapid restoration of electricity and heating to get through the winter.
Despite the constant shelling, Ukrainian cities are preparing to usher in 2023. In Mykolaiv, the main Christmas tree, decorated in a military style, covers a local monument, while in Kharkiv local authorities decided to install it in the metro.
Russian forces continue to work on the defensive line between Kherson Oblast and Crimea, while intensifying protection of the North Crimean Canal. Additional units of conscripts from Krasnodar Krai were deployed there for this purpose, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine reported on December 16. In particular, in the settlements of Mizhvodne and Chornomorske (north-west of the peninsula), the Russian occupation authorities have intensified their administrative, police, and counter-intelligence measures.
The occupiers are also working to reinforce the coastline of the peninsula to prevent the landing of Ukrainian troops. Mine barriers and trenches have recently been installed along the coast near the village of Molochne (Saky district, west of the peninsula). “The so-called ‘dragon's teeth’ are installed - rows of concrete pyramids, which are supposed to stop the advance of heavy equipment,” the Chief Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine reported on December 15.
“Dragon’s teeth” were also seen along the road from Dzhankoi to Krasnoperekopsk, in the north of the peninsula, Telegram channel Crimean Wind reported. It also published pictures of fortifications on the west coast of Crimea.
The same channel noted that the Russian authorities in Saky have put up signs about the location of shelters. This began in the summer, after a series of explosions on the peninsula led occupation authorities to check bomb shelters. Memos about what to do in case of shelling were also seen in Kerch in November.
Wagner Group recruitment posters have been seen in Simferopol, and in public transport stations in Yevpatoriia. They include an email, phone number and a call “to become part of the Wagner fighting brotherhood”.
The Ukrainian resistance continues in the occupied peninsula. The ATESH resistance movement, which operates in Crimea, claimed responsibility for setting fire to a Russian military base in Sovietskyi. “Our agents worked like clockwork. We have been working on this “project” for a long time and of course we succeeded,” the group said.
On December 10, it was reported that a fire broke out in the barracks and two people died as a result. All the servicemen were moved to another building. The Pro-Russian Telegram channel Krymskii said it happened as a result of the careless handling of fire.
Due to the overcrowding in hospitals and morgues in temporarily occupied Melitopol, Zaporizhzhia Oblast, Russian forces have been transporting injured and dead military personnel to Crimea.
“In Simferopol and other cities, local residents are denied certain forms of treatment more and more often,” said Refat Chubarov, chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people. “This indicates that civilian doctors are busy treating the wounded [soldiers].”
People in occupied Crimea continue to be prosecuted for political reasons, including membership of organizations banned in the temporarily occupied territories or Russia. They have also been sentenced on charges of "desecrating the grave site" of a Russian army serviceman from Crimea, or for anti-war leaflets, according to the legal affairs newspaper Graty.
“Since February 24, 2022, Russian and occupation courts have sentenced 45 victims of politically motivated persecution in occupied Crimea,” said Yevhenii Yaroshenko, an analyst for KrymSOS, a Crimean non-profit organization.
Occupying forces have also continued to transfer illegally convicted Ukrainians to remote oblasts in Russia. Lawyers call this “forced abduction”. They have been sent to Dagestan, Mordovia, Tambov and Kostroma oblasts, Graty said.
Illegal militarization of children continues in schools in Crimea: "hero desks" appeared with the names and biographies of natives of the peninsula who fought against Ukraine and were killed. According to one Crimean human rights group, “the entire system of school education, starting with the curriculum, in one form or another promotes service in the Russian army and ‘values of the Russian world’, which deprives children of the opportunity to express their Ukrainian identity or freely choose their identity.”
Forced passportization has also been observed on the peninsula. Until July 2022, there were almost no applications for Russian citizenship in Crimea, but the situation changed significantly after Putin signed a decree simplifying the registration of citizenship for all Ukrainians, the Russian outlet MediaZona reported. By the end of October, there were almost 130,000 applications for Russian passports on the peninsula.
Natalya, a volunteer who helps Ukrainian refugees from mainland, told journalists that many people were taken to Crimea from Kherson and Kherson Oblast and given no choice but to switch to Russian citizenship.
“Often they are denied any medical and social assistance without [Russian] passports,” Natalya said. “For example, a family with a small child was moved to Crimea, the child fell ill - in order to receive medical care for the child, one must obtain a Russian passport. A woman with cancer told me the same thing.”
Battles on the Bakhmut front continue. The Ukrainian army is defending the city in order to slow down the Russian advance and reduce their combat capability. For the Russians, taking it would not only be a PR boost for Wagner Group and the Kremlin. It would also allow the deployment of about two divisions of its army in the city in sub-zero temperatures, instead of keeping them in the fields.
"A captured Wagnerite told us: you killed 50 people today, 50 more were brought to replace them by the evening. If you killed 100, they would bring 100 more. They try to keep exactly 900 people in the assault unit. They are told: "Manpower is not a problem"," Petro Kuzyk, commander of the Svoboda battalion of the National Guard, said in an interview with Ukrainska Pravda.
As of December 15, 10,500 people remained in Bakhmut hromada (municipality), down about one third from the beginning of fall. Ninety percent of those people are residents of Bakhmut. Despite the constant attacks, shops, one pharmacy and a car shop are still open in the city. Rescue workers are helping with the injured, because only one of the city’s 10 ambulances is functional, the press service of the Bakhmut City Council informed Suspilne.
Russian forces have stepped up forced mobilization in Donetsk Oblast. In Horlivka, all men are subject to conscription, including those with a “reservation” mark in their military ID, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine reported on December 13. There were also 28 women drafted by the Kalinin District Military Commissariat in Donetsk and sent for training to re-staff units of the 1st Army Corps.
The Russian army is moving military equipment to Berdiansk-Melitopol, Zaporizhzhia Oblast, from and through Mariupol. According to Petro Andriushchenko, advisor to the mayor of Mariupol, armored vehicles, howitzers, artillery, and military trucks with gun trailers are being delivered to the oblast. At the same time, “dragon teeth” were taken to Mariupol from Russia and occupied Crimea. Manhush (a city just 19 km/11 miles from Mariupol) has been reinforced with a Buk-type air defense system, and a rapid increase in Russian forces and soldiers from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic has been observed.
Riot police units (OMON) from St. Petersburg have also arrived in Mariupol and started patrolling the streets on December 16.
Occupying forces are continuing their destruction of the center of Mariupol. According to the city council, there are plans to completely demolish a block near the Azovstal plant in the Left Bank district of the city. “The occupiers continue their efforts to ruin Mariupol. Apartment buildings, which the Russians purposefully bombed during the siege, are regularly destroyed,” the council said in a post on Telegram.
Russian forces are looting and transporting Ukrainian grain from the occupied territories to Russia. There was a queue of trucks more than 15 kilometers long on the border between Ukraine and Russia in the Novoazovsk district, Petro Andriushchenko, an advisor to the mayor of Mariupol, reported on Telegram. The vast majority of them were carrying grain. Grain is transported in tented trucks from the entire occupied part of Donetsk Oblast.
The occupation authorities in Mariupol want to set up a Christmas tree in the city and take children for “a special cultural program and excursions to New Year's in St. Petersburg”. The Mariupol city council replied that the installation of a Christmas tree is yet “another cynicism and a dance on the bones of thousands of peaceful Mariupol residents who died at the hands of the Russians.”
Kharkiv and the surrounding area continue to come under attack. The Russian army conducted at least three airstrikes on Kharkiv and the region on December 16, damaging critical infrastructure and causing power outages.
Last week, the Security Service of Ukraine revealed the names of six Russian generals who ordered troops to "breakthrough" Ukraine’s state border in Kharkiv Oblast and seize settlements. Investigators, in cooperation with the National Police, have collected evidence of the culpability of Russian commanders in crimes against Ukrainian national security and the Security Service is undertaking further measures to bring the occupiers to justice.
After the liberation of Kharkiv Oblast from Russian soldiers, law enforcement authorities continued to contact residents suspected of collaborating with Russian forces. Last week, one 48-year-old resident, who was appointed “director” of a school in August, received such a note. He had ordered subordinates to destroy all Ukrainian symbols and implement educational plans according to the Russian program. Prosecutors continue to find Russian textbooks in schools and lyceums on territory liberated from the Russian army. For example, law enforcement authorities seized 300 textbooks in Chuhuiv region. In November, more than 5,000 Russian textbooks and certificates were found in a Lyceum in Kupiansk, another city liberated from the Russian army.
Meanwhile, Kharkiv cultural activists signed an open letter to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in which they asked for assistance in renaming the Kharkiv Academic Russian Drama Theater, which is currently named after Pushkin. They want to remove the name of the Russian poet and mention of the aggressor state from its name.
Such a move “is not a process of distorting our history and erasing our memory. Rather, this is our victory in the battle of cultures - the de-occupation of our cultural space and consciousness,” the activists wrote in the letter. Despite constant attacks, Kharkiv is preparing to usher in 2023. Residents will be able to celebrate the new year at the Universytet metro station, where the city's main Christmas tree has been installed. But locals will have to visit before the city’s curfew, which since December 6 has been from 11:00 pm to 5:00 am.
Russian soldiers continued shelling Ukrainian-held positions and critical civilian infrastructure on the right bank of the Dnipro River. On just one day, December 15, the Russian military attacked Kherson more than 16 times.
At the same time, Russia is planning to withdraw some of its troops from Nova Kakhovka and Kakhovka, on the east side of the river. The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine reported on December 17 that the “Russian military is spreading information among local residents that Kakhovka will be left by Russian troops by the end of this year, therefore they suggest that locals loyal to the occupiers move to the temporarily occupied Ukrainian Crimea."
New FSB groups have arrived in the south to search for the Ukrainian underground. According to the National Resistance Center, these FSB units will carry out signals and electronic intelligence, including intercepting calls, monitoring internet traffic, and jamming signals during the movement of Russian military equipment. The Center warns residents to be cautious.
“The activity of the partisans was significantly decisive in the battle for Kherson, because it was thanks to their help that it was possible to destroy a lot of equipment and manpower of the Russian forces,” General Dmytro Marchenko said in an interview with Ukrainska Pravda.
On December 12, the car of Vitalii Buliuk, a former deputy of the Kherson Regional Council and collaborator, exploded in the Russian-occupied city of Skadovsk. The city council reported that Buliuk was taken to one of the Simferopol hospitals with injuries. Russia’s Interfax news agency confirmed the information, citing the occupation authorities.
New evidence of Russian crimes has been found in Kherson Oblast. According to Commissioner for Human Rights Dmytro Lubinets, the Russian military set up torture chambers for children who, in the occupiers’ opinion, offered resistance. Lubinets published the story of a 14 year-old who was abducted by the Russian military for photographing destroyed equipment and held for 10 days in a unit where he heard the screams of other inmates being beaten.
“I spent the first 6 days in the shower, in the company of 13 people. Sometimes they changed, someone was taken out, someone was taken. It was cold and dreary and I was wearing only a light jacket, t-shirt and a sweater,” the teenager said. “Four more days I was in a room with blocked windows, which was never ventilated. There was a terrible smell of mice. I didn’t eat a single meal those days.”
The A7053 military unit asked Kherson residents to voluntarily surrender the weapons they received from February 24 to March 1, during the formation of the territorial defense brigade. The Kherson city council reported the request on Telegram and provided instructions.
Russian occupying forces have intensified conscription in occupied Luhansk Oblast, intending to replenish their personnel. According to Serhii Haidai, head of the Luhansk Oblast Military Administration, almost everyone in Milove and Khrustalne has received a conscription notice, without regard to age, health, or number of children. Also, in the city of Krasnyi Luch, the number of patrols checking men's documents, handing out conscription notices, and taking conscripts to draft centers has increased.
The occupation authorities in Luhansk Oblast are also scrapping mining equipment and preparing to close mines. According to the Luhansk Oblast Military Administration, such activity has been reported in Dovzhansk, where about 700 mine workers were told to look for new jobs. Equipment is being dismantled in Azot, in Sievierodonetsk, (which used to be the third largest producer of ammonia in the country and one of the largest in Europe).
“This is the reality - trucks are taking the surviving technological equipment to Russia. In particular, to Rossosh, Voronezh Oblast, where there is a similar enterprise,” the administration reported.
The Russians are also recruiting people to build fortifications and dig trenches in Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia oblasts. According to the Russian media outlet Meduza (based in Latvia), the company that built the Kerch bridge to Crimea is offering work on a shift basis for 30 to 90 days, paying 89,000 rubles (more than $1,200) to 258,000 thousand rubles (around $3,600).
Meanwhile, all hospitals in the occupied part of Luhansk Oblast are being used to treat Russian soldiers. According to the National Resistance Center, the situation is particularly acute in Kreminna and Luhansk. “Luhansk City Multidisciplinary Hospital No. 15 currently refuses to serve civilians and is supposed to be finally reoriented for the needs of military service in December,” the Center reports.
The Center also says Russian forces are continuing the illegal transfer of Ukrainian children to Russia. In particular, 40 children from Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk were taken to Russia for forced "treatment" in children's camps.
“The children are not returned to their parents until they come to pick them up. Then the family is not allowed back, because the Russians imposed martial law on temporarily occupied territory,” the Center said on its website. “In the best case, children in the camp are simply brainwashed. They are told that Ukraine started this war, and famous Russian actors, sportsmen and bloggers who use their "authority" for propaganda purposes speak in front of the children.”
Repair crews continue to work to restore infrastructure damaged by Russian soldiers.
According to preliminary data, the Russian military has caused at least $900 million in damage to Mykolaiv since the beginning of the full-scale war. The scale of the damage was calculated using a detailed geoinformation system, according to Mykolaiv Mayor Oleksandr Sienkevych.
There are no civilians left on the Kinburn Spit, which is still under Russian control, according to Vitalii Kim, head of the Mykolaiv Oblast Military Administration. “A little less than a week ago, the Russians forcibly evicted civilians and took them to Crimea,” Kim said. “These are small villages, they basically lived there at the expense of tourists and in winter 100-200 people lived there in peacetime. Therefore, for now, there are only enemy soldiers there.”
Law enforcement authorities continue to detain local residents suspected of collaborating with Russian forces during the occupation. In one case, a resident of the Shevchenkove community was detained on suspicion of aiding the Russian military by stealing a car for them, voluntarily taking water to their positions and helping steal the property of a local farmer, according to an investigation by the regional prosecutor’s office.
Demining continues in the liberated territories. On December 16 another warehouse containing Russian ammunition was discovered in the city of Snihurivka and handed over to the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
Newborns from Kherson will be temporarily registered in Mykolaiv, due to concerns for the safety of visitors and employees and the fact that Russian soldiers looted the facility in Kherson. Pictures of the damage were published by the Kherson city council.
Despite the shelling, a Christmas tree was installed in Mykolaiv with a special military look this year, writes Suspilne. The monument to Saint Nicholas in the city center has been covered with camouflage netting and illumination. All residents have been encouraged to decorate it with toys.
Occupying forces have imposed an all-night curfew in the Russian-controlled areas of Zaporizhzhia Oblast. According to the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, there will be restrictions from 25 December in Chernihivka, and from 30 December to 3 January in Berdiansk.
The Russians are also preparing for street battles in temporarily occupied Melitopol. According to Mayor Ivan Fedorov, they are placing "dragon's teeth" closer to civilians - in the middle of central streets and residential areas.
The mayor also reported that Russian forces have stopped letting people leave the occupied territories of Ukraine. Not a single resident has left the city since December 15. It was possible to leave the occupation zone through Donetsk Oblast or Crimea towards Georgia, Estonia, and Latvia, but recently, there have been more cases when the Russians turn Ukrainian cars back at the border of Russia and European countries.
“It’s another example of the occupiers' terror in action: they are so afraid of the attack of the Armed Forces that they are holding all civilians hostage as ‘human shields’,” wrote Fedorov.
The Russian forces are also holding 232 residents of Zaporizhzhia Oblast as hostages, according to Oleksandr Starukh, the head of Zaporizhzhia Oblast Military Administration. “International oversight and watchdog organizations demonstrate their helplessness regarding these violations of the rights to life and safety,” he said.
Due to the large losses of the Russian army, mobile crematoria have been set up in Tokmak, Zaporizhzhia Oblast, according to the General Staff, which also said numerous soldiers had been taken to Crimean hospitals. As in other regions, the Russian occupiers are forcing residents to switch to rubles and apply for Russian passports in the Melitopol district.
“The occupiers are trying to financially encourage the local population to collaborate, providing cash assistance to pensioners in the amount of 10,000 rubles (approximately $145) and paying a higher salary to loyal local residents who agreed to work in the institutions of the so-called occupying forces," the General Staff reported. This was confirmed by Melitopol Mayor Fedorov, who said the Russian occupiers aim to withdraw the Ukrainian hryvnia from January 1.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.