May 31, 2024

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 31, 2024

Institute for the Study of War

Riley Bailey, Christina Harward, Angelica Evans, Grace Mappes, and Frederick W. Kagan

May 31, 2024, 6:45pm ET

US and German officials confirmed that the United States and Germany have changed their policies to allow Ukraine to use US- and German-provided weapons to strike Russian territory with some restrictions but did not offer precise details about these restrictions. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated on May 31 that President Joe Biden approved Ukraine’s use of US-supplied weapons to defend against Russian aggression, “including against Russian forces that are massing on the Russian side of the border and then attacking into Ukraine.”[1] Western media reported on May 30 that the Biden administration gave Ukraine permission to use US-provided weapons, including GMLRS rockets, for “counter-fire purposes” against the Russian forces conducting assaults in northern Kharkiv Oblast but has not changed its policy restricting Ukraine from using US-provided weapons, such as ATACMS, to conduct long-range strikes elsewhere into Russia.[2] Blinken’s May 31 statement did not specify which US-provided weapons Ukraine would be able to use or if the United States would allow Ukraine to use US-supplied weapons to strike Russian concentrations in Kursk and Bryansk oblasts as well. It is also unclear from Blinken’s statement if the United States will allow Ukraine to strike Russian forces that are massing across the border but have not yet attacked into Ukrainian territory. Blinken responded to a journalist’s question on May 31 about whether the United States would allow Ukraine to use US-provided weapons to strike deeper into Russian territory, stating that the United States will “as necessary adapt and adjust.”[3]

German Federal Government Spokesperson Steffen Hebestreit stated on May 31 that Ukraine has a “right under international law to defend itself” against Russian attacks and that Ukraine can use German-provided weapons “for this purpose.”[4] Hebestreit noted that Russian forces have attacked Ukraine “in the Kharkiv areas from positions in the immediately adjacent Russian border region” but did not specify whether Germany will only allow Ukraine to use German-provided weapons to strike Russian territory near Kharkiv Oblast. German Ambassador to the UK Miguel Berger, however, specifically stated on May 31 that the German government has allowed Ukraine to use German weapons to “defend itself against attacks on [Kharkiv Oblast] from bordering Russian territory,” and select Western media similarly reported that Germany had geographically restricted Ukraine to use German-provided weapons against the adjacent Russian border area (presumably only Belgorod Oblast) to defend northern Kharkiv Oblast.[5] Other Western states continue to emphasize that they are imposing few to no restrictions on the use of weapons they are providing to Ukraine, however. Radio Svoboda reported on May 31 that Dutch Foreign Minister Hanke Bruins-Slot stated that the Netherlands does not oppose Ukraine’s use of F-16s against military targets on Russian territory for self-defense.[6]

Ukrainian forces conducted a series of drone and missile strikes against a Russian long-range radar system in occupied Crimea and an oil depot in Krasnodar Krai on May 31 following the May 30 Ukrainian strike against the Kerch Strait ferry crossing. Ukrainian media, citing unspecified sources, reported on May 31 that Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) conducted a successful drone strike against a Russian “Nebo-IED” long-range radar system near occupied Armyansk, Crimea, and estimated that the system is worth $100 million.[7] The radar system reportedly serviced a 380-kilometer-long section of the frontline, and Ukrainian forces reportedly observed a shutdown of the radar’s radiation signature following the drone strike, indicating that the strike took the system offline. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces conducted a strike on an oil depot near the port of Kavkaz, Krasnodar Krai with several Neptune anti-ship missiles early in the morning on May 31, and geolocated footage published on May 31 shows a fire at the oil depot.[8] Krasnodar Krai Governor Veniamin Kondratyev stated that Russian air defenses repelled an unspecified large number of Ukrainian drones targeting Krasnodar Krai and that the strike damaged three petroleum tanks at an oil depot in Temryuk Raion.[9] Russian opposition outlet Astra stated that Ukrainian forces struck at least two additional facilities at the port and damaged a substation that provides power to the Kerch Strait Bridge.[10] Russian milbloggers claimed that Ukrainian drones also struck a railway train carrying fuel near the oil depot.[11]

The Ukrainian General Staff reported on May 30 that Ukrainian forces conducted a successful ATACMS strike on a ferry crossing and damaged two ferries that Russian forces were using to transport forces and equipment across the Kerch Strait to occupied Crimea on the night of May 29 to 30.[12] Ukrainian Southern Operational Command Spokesperson Captain Third Rank Dmytro Pletenchuk stated on May 31 that Russian forces still rely on the ferry crossing because the railway line across the Kerch Strait Bridge is unfinished and that the strike should affect the provisioning of the Russian force grouping in occupied Crimea.[13] Russian sources issued conflicting reports on May 30 about the results of the May 29 to 30 Ukrainian strike – a Crimean occupation administration official claimed that the strike damaged two pilot boats, a car, and a section of the railway line, while Russia opposition outlet Astra stated that the strike sunk the Mechta pilot boat.[14] The port of Kavkaz reportedly specializes in servicing rail and truck ferry vessels, and the May 31 strike may be another aspect of Ukraine’s strike against the ferry crossing.[15]

Ukraine signed long-term bilateral security agreements with Sweden, Iceland, and Norway on May 31. The Ukraine-Sweden agreement stipulates that Sweden will provide 6.5 billion euros (about $7 billion) of military assistance for the next decade, will transfer an unspecified amount of ASC 890 advanced early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft, and continue efforts to transfer JAS 39 Gripen aircraft to Ukraine.[16] The Swedish military assistance package announced on May 29, worth about $1.25 billion and containing an ASC 890 aircraft, is likely part of this bilateral security agreement.[17] The Ukraine-Iceland agreement stipulates that Iceland will provide at least $30 million annually from 2024 to 2028 to finance and purchase defense materials and help develop Ukraine’s defense industry.[18] The Ukraine-Norway agreement stipulates that Norway will provide assistance worth 75 billion kroner (about $7.1 billion) from 2023 to 2027, including at least 13.5 billion kroner (about $1.2 billion) in 2024.[19] Norway will also provide Ukraine with air and missile defense systems, including NASAMs, and help develop Ukraine’s aircraft capabilities including with F-16 fighters.

Germany and Poland announced additional large military assistance packages for Ukraine. German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius announced on May 30 a package worth 500 million euros (about $542 million) that includes a Patriot air defense system, a “large number” of IRIS-T SLM air defense missiles, a smaller number of shorter-range IRIS-T SLS air defense missiles, reconnaissance and combat drones, and spare parts including artillery gun barrels.[20] Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski announced on May 31 that Poland is preparing a military assistance package for Ukraine worth four billion euros (about $4.3 billion).[21]

Russia’s continued efforts to rally Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) member countries around an imagined confrontation with the West likely stems from Russian concerns about the CSTO’s longevity as a vector for Russian influence. Russian Defense Minister Andrei Belousov addressed a meeting of the CSTO Council of Defense Ministers in Almaty, Kazakhstan on May 31 and claimed that a tense situation in Eastern Europe and an alleged NATO military buildup threaten the security of CSTO members.[22] Belousov alleged that the US and its allies are a destabilizing geopolitical force and that NATO countries seek to strengthen their positions in the Caucasus and gain access to resources in the Caspian Sea and direct access to Central Asia.[23] Belousov warned that the West has unleashed an information war and sanctions against CSTO members to undermine the organization and called on CSTO members to coordinate their foreign policies to present a united front.[24] Belousov stated that Russia is specifically concerned about alleged US and NATO plans to involve nominal CSTO member Armenia in the West’s sphere of interest.[25] Armenia has effectively ceased participation in the CSTO following Russia’s failure to prevent Armenia’s loss of Nagorno-Karabakh, and Armenia remains a CSTO member only in name.[26] The Kremlin has explicitly threatened Armenia if Armenia does not resume active engagement in the CSTO and return to a pro-Kremlin alignment.[27] Armenia has specifically questioned the value of its CSTO membership following the loss of Nagorno-Karabakh, and the Kremlin is likely concerned that deteriorating relations with Armenia could prompt other CSTO members to question the utility of their CSTO membership.[28] Recent tensions in the Russian-Tajik relationship following the March 2024 Crocus City Hall attack and Central Asian concerns about the impacts of secondary sanctions may be incentivizing the Kremlin to intensify efforts to convince CSTO members that the organization and their involvement in other Russian-led multilateral organizations is worthwhile.[29]

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are unlikely to buy into the Kremlin’s imagined geopolitical confrontation with the West, and the Kremlin will likely have to offer more concrete promises to maintain the CSTO as a viable collective security organization oriented around Russian interests. Belousov met with Tajikistani Defense Minister Sherali Mirzo in a bilateral meeting on May 31 and stressed that the CSTO will address the escalating situation on the CSTO’s southern border.[30] Belousov claimed that the situation in Afghanistan and the threat of terrorism remain the main sources of instability in Central Asia and that the CSTO must have timely responses to this threat, including strengthening the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border.[31] Russia is currently considering delisting the Taliban as a prohibited organization and will likely strengthen cooperation with the Taliban to combat the Islamic State’s Afghan branch IS-Khorasan (IS-K), which conducted the Crocus City Hall attack.[32] IS-K recruited Tajikistani citizens for the Crocus City Hall attack, and Tajikistan likely views multilateral counterterrorism operations as a way to repair strained relations with Russia while also combating transnational terrorist threats emanating from Afghanistan.[33] Russian President Vladimir Putin met with the Russian Security Council on May 31 and also emphasized strengthening international cooperation on counterterrorism.[34] Other Central Asian states, including CSTO members Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, likely view Russian offers for counterterrorism cooperation as attractive benefits of continued security relations with Russia.

Although Russian forces made significant tactical gains in northern Kharkiv Oblast in early May 2024, Russian Defense Minister Andrei Belousov heavily overestimated Russian advances in Ukraine since the start of 2024. Belousov claimed on May 31 that Russian forces have seized 880 square kilometers thus far in 2024.[35] ISW has observed evidence confirming that Russian forces have only seized approximately 752 square kilometers in 2024, however. ISW previously assessed that Russian forces seized about 516 square kilometers between January 1, 2024, and April 29, 2024.[36]

Ukraine and Russia conducted a one-for-one prisoner of war (POW) exchange on May 31, the first POW exchange since February 8. Ukrainian and Russian officials announced that Ukraine and Russia exchanged 75 Ukrainian POWs for 75 Russian POWs, and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) credited the United Arab Emirates with mediating the exchange.[37] Russian authorities recently blamed “far-fetched” Ukrainian demands for causing the several-month-long suspension of POW exchanges.[38]

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) announced on May 31 that it will not join the June 2024 Ukraine peace summit. PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) Spokesperson Mao Ning stated on May 31 that the PRC will not attend the upcoming Ukraine peace summit in Switzerland because the meeting falls “far short of China’s requests and expectations” and emphasized that “both Russia and Ukraine” should “endorse” the peace process.[39] Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky previously stated that Ukraine will only be open to negotiations with Russia after developing a peace plan with its allies, and Ukrainian officials have recently emphasized that it is imperative for both the United States and China to attend the June 2024 peace summit as their participation is “decisive” in compelling Russia to participate in the process of restoring peace and security.[40] Senior Kremlin officials, including President Vladimir Putin, have recently endorsed the PRC’s vague 12-point peace plan in Ukraine to falsely portray the Kremlin as willing to negotiate with Ukraine.[41] Senior Russian officials have repeatedly signaled that Russia is unwilling to engage in good-faith negotiations with Ukraine and has no interest in ending the war on terms that would prevent Putin from pursuing the destruction of an independent Ukraine.[42]

Key Takeaways:

  • US and German officials confirmed that the United States and Germany have changed their policies to allow Ukraine to use US- and German-provided weapons to strike Russian territory with some restrictions but did not offer precise details about these restrictions.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted a series of drone and missile strikes against a Russian long-range radar system in occupied Crimea and an oil depot in Krasnodar Krai on May 31 following the May 30 Ukrainian strike against the Kerch Strait ferry crossing.
  • Ukraine signed long-term bilateral security agreements with Sweden, Iceland, and Norway on May 31.
  • Russia’s continued efforts to rally Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) member countries around an imagined confrontation with the West likely stems from Russian concerns about the CSTO’s longevity as a vector for Russian influence.
  • Although Russian forces made significant tactical gains in northern Kharkiv Oblast in early May 2024, Russian Defense Minister Andrei Belousov heavily overestimated Russian advances in Ukraine since the start of 2024.
  • Ukraine and Russia conducted a one-for-one prisoner of war (POW) exchange on May 31, the first POW exchange since February 8.
  • The People’s Republic of China (PRC) announced on May 31 that it will not join the June 2024 Ukraine peace summit.
  • Russian forces recently advanced near Vovchansk, Avdiivka, and Donetsk City.
  • Russian State Duma Information Policy Committee Chairperson Alexander Khinshtein announced on May 30 that he and Duma Security Committee Chairperson Vasily Piskarev submitted a bill for the Duma’s consideration that would eliminate toll fees for Russian military, Rosgvardia, and Federal Security Service (FSB) vehicles.
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