March 30, 2024

Institute for the Study of War:  U.S. aid delays costing Ukraine the battlefield initiative, Zelenskyy warns

Institute for the Study of War

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky indicated that delays in American security assistance have forced Ukraine to cede the battlefield initiative and that these delays continue to threaten Ukraine’s defensive capabilities. The Washington Post published excerpts of an interview with Zelensky on March 29 in which Zelensky stated that Ukraine will not be able to defend its territory without American support, as Ukraine currently relies on air defense systems and missiles, electronic warfare jammers, and 155mm artillery shells from the United States. Zelensky stated that continued materiel shortages will force the Ukrainian military to cede more Ukrainian territory and people “step by step” since a smaller but more stable frontline is preferable to a larger but unstable front that Russian forces could exploit to achieve a breakthrough. Zelensky stated that Ukrainian forces are “trying to find some way not to retreat” from unspecified frontline areas and noted that Ukrainian forces have stabilized the front near Avdiivka, Donetsk Oblast. Zelensky reiterated that the Ukrainian military’s planning ability to make decisions is contingent on US military assistance and that Ukraine cannot plan counteroffensive efforts without knowing whether Ukraine will receive US military assistance, and what future US military assistance will entail. Zelensky warned that Russia will exploit any future scenarios in which Ukraine must cede the initiative: “If you are not taking steps forward to prepare another counteroffensive, Russia will take [these steps].” Zelensky also stated that Ukraine has learned that “if you don’t do it, Russia will do it.” Zelensky also indicated that Ukraine is conducting rear-area strikes against Russian oil refineries to generate strategic effects as Ukraine cannot plan for or conduct counteroffensive operations without more information about US military assistance. Zelensky stated that Ukrainian strikes against Russian oil refineries and other strategic targets are in response to Russian strikes against Ukrainian energy infrastructure. Zelensky’s interview is consistent with Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi’s recent statements that delays in Western military assistance are constraining Ukrainian forces and that Ukrainian forces are not able to completely compensate for battlefield shortcomings caused by material shortages.

Russian missile strikes destroyed one of the largest thermal power plants in Kharkiv Oblast on March 22, as continued delays in US security assistance degrade Ukraine’s air defense umbrella and increase Russia’s ability to significantly damage Ukraine’s energy grid. Ukrainian electric company Tsentrenergo reported on March 29 that Russian missile strikes destroyed all power units and auxiliary equipment at the Zmiivska Thermal Power Plant (TPP) in Kharkiv Oblast on March 22. Russian forces conducted the largest series of combined drone and missile strikes targeting Ukrainian energy infrastructure on the night of March 21 to 22 since the start of the full-scale invasion and have since heavily targeted Ukrainian energy infrastructure, including hydroelectric power plants (HPPs). Russian strikes against Ukrainian energy facilities may aim to degrade Ukrainian defense industrial capacity, and Russian forces are likely trying to exploit Ukraine’s degraded air defense umbrella to collapse Ukraine’s energy grid. The Washington Post reported on March 29 that Ukraine’s largest private energy company DTEK stated that Russian drones and missiles are increasingly penetrating Ukraine’s air defense, and that more accurate and concentrated Russian strikes are inflicting greater damage against Ukrainian energy facilities. Previous Russian strikes have recently rendered other Ukrainian energy facilities inoperable before, but the complete destruction of a TPP is rare and notable, and the recently accelerated degradation of Ukraine’s energy generation capabilities, if gone unchecked, will likely constrain Ukraine’s ability to stabilize future disruptions to its energy grid in the long term.

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky indicated that delays in American security assistance have forced Ukraine to cede the battlefield initiative, not contest the battlefield initiative, and continue to threaten Ukraine’s defensive capabilities.
  • Russian missile strikes destroyed one of the largest thermal power plants in Kharkiv Oblast on March 22, as continued delays in US security assistance degrade Ukraine’s air defense umbrella and increase Russia’s ability to significantly damage Ukraine’s energy grid.
  • Russian forces are demonstrating technological and tactical adaptations and are increasingly using unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) on the frontlines of Donetsk Oblast.
  • The Russian military is reportedly forming mobile fire groups to mitigate against Ukrainian drone strike threats but will likely struggle to field these groups at the required scale in the near term.
  • Russian authorities continue to escalate legal pressure against migrants in the wake of the March 22 Crocus City Hall attack, prompting both Russian authorities to increase deportations and migrants to voluntarily leave Russia.
  • Positional engagements continued throughout the theater on March 30.
  • Russian mobilized personnel continue to suffer high casualties while fighting in Ukraine.

For full report:  https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-march-30-2024 

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