March 28, 2024

Institue for the Study of War: Ukraine’s air defenses degrading as U.S. Congress delays further military aid

Institute for the Study of War

Ukraine is currently preventing Russian forces from making significant tactical gains along the entire frontline, but continued delays in US security assistance will likely expand the threat of Russian operational success, including in non-linear and possibly exponential ways. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated in an interview with CBS News published on March 28 that Ukrainian forces managed to hold off Russian advances through winter 2023–2024 and that Ukrainian forces have stabilized the operational situation. Ukrainian forces slowed the rate of Russian advances west of Avdiivka following the Russian seizure of the settlement on February 17, and Russian forces have only made gradual, marginal tactical gains elsewhere in Ukraine. Zelensky stated that Ukrainian forces are not prepared to defend against another major Russian offensive effort expected in May or June 2024, however. Russian forces will likely continue to maintain the tempo of their offensive operations through spring 2024 regardless of difficult weather and terrain conditions in order to exploit Ukrainian materiel shortages before the arrival of expected limited Western security assistance. Russian forces also likely aim to force Ukraine to expend materiel it could otherwise accumulate for defensive efforts this summer and possible counteroffensive operations later in 2024 or in 2025. Pervasive shortages may be forcing Ukraine to prioritize limited resources to critical sectors of the front, increasing the risk of a Russian breakthrough in other less-well-provisioned sectors and making the frontline overall more fragile than it appears despite the current relatively slow rate of Russian advances.

ISW assesses that Russian forces have seized 505 square kilometers of territory since launching offensive operations in October 2023, and Russian forces gained almost 100 more square kilometers of territory between January 1 and March 28, 2024, than in the last three months of 2023 (although this rate of advance may be due to a combination of Ukrainian materiel shortages and more conducive weather conditions in the winter than in the fall). This marginal increase in the rate of Russian advance is not reflective of the threat of Russian operational success amid continued delays in US security assistance, however. Materiel constraints limit how Ukrainian forces can conduct effective defensive operations while also offering Russian forces flexibility in how to conduct offensive operations, which can lead to compounding and non-linear opportunities for Russian forces to make operationally significant gains in the future. The opportunities to exploit Ukrainian vulnerabilities will widen as materiel shortages persist and as Ukraine continues to grapple with how to address manpower challenges. The arrival of sufficient and regular Western security assistance and the resolution of Ukrainian manpower challenges would narrow these opportunities for Russian forces and provide Ukrainian forces with the ability to stop Russian forces from making even marginal tactical gains, to degrade Russian offensive capabilities, and to prepare for future counteroffensive operations to liberate more Ukrainian territory.

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukraine is currently preventing Russian forces from making significant tactical gains along the entire frontline, but continued delays in US security assistance will likely expand the threat of Russian operational success, including in non-linear and possibly exponential ways.
  • The continued degradation of Ukraine’s air defense umbrella provides one of the most immediate avenues through which Russian forces could generate non-linear operational impacts.
  • Russia’s ability to conduct opportunistic but limited offensive actions along Ukraine’s international border with Russia offers Russia further opportunities to constrain Ukrainian manpower and materiel, but Western aid provisions and Ukrainian efforts to address manpower challenges would ease the impacts of such Russian efforts.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin continued to make sensationalized statements as part of Russia’s ongoing reflexive control campaign, which aims to deter further Western military aid provisions to Ukraine and deflect attention from the growing Russian force posturing against NATO.
  • Putin’s March 27 statements are neither new nor surprising, and best illustrate how the Kremlin routinely overwhelms the Western information space, often with irrelevant or decontextualized truths rather than with outright misinformation or disinformation, to shape global perceptions and advance its own long-term objectives.
  • The Russian Investigative Committee unsurprisingly claimed that it has evidence tying Ukraine to the March 22 Crocus City Hall attack amid continued Kremlin efforts to link Ukraine and the West to the terrorist attack to generate more domestic support for the war in Ukraine.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed concern for heightened ethnic tension in Russian society following the Crocus City Hall attacks and may be falsely blaming Ukraine and the West for the Crocus City Hall attack in order to divert domestic attention away from ethnic tensions.
  • Ukrainian drone strikes against oil refineries in Russia are reportedly forcing Russia to import gasoline from Belarus.
  • An independent investigation found that international information operation campaigns linked to deceased Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin remained active, despite the Russian government shutting down media companies and organizations overtly linked to Prigozhin after his death.
  • Senior Russian officials are intensifying their victim-blaming of Armenian leadership as Armenia continues to distance itself from security relations with Russia after the Kremlin abandoned Armenia to its fate as it lost Nagorno-Karabakh.
  • Russian forces made confirmed advances near Donetsk City.
  • Russia continues efforts to source ballistic missiles and other weapons from North Korea for use in Ukraine.
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