May 22, 2024

The Hudson Institute: Russian forces prepare assault on Ukraine’s Sumy region

Ukraine Defense Ministry

Ukraine Military Situation Report | May 22

Below Hudson Senior Fellow Can Kasapoğlu offers a military situation report about the war in Ukraine.

Executive Summary

— Russian combat formations are securing tactical gains in their assault on the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.

— Ukrainian defense intelligence has warned about an upcoming Russian offensive against Sumy Oblast that will likely mimic the Kremlin’s fast-unfolding Kharkiv offensive.

— Russia’s new defense minister, Andrey Belousov, will prioritize modernizing the Kremlin’s military and improving the country’s defense economic outlook.

— First-person-view (FPV) drones continue to threaten both Russian and Ukrainian main battle tanks, prompting both sides to devise innovative countermeasures.

— The European Union has agreed to use revenues from frozen Russian assets to fund Ukraine’s recovery and defense, a crucial step ahead of a likely Russian offensive.

1. Battlefield Assessment

Russia continues to rain drones and missiles on Ukrainian cities, once more highlighting Ukraine’s critical reliance on robust air defense capabilities. Moscow’s strategy has been like that of a boxer, throwing a few quick jabs to soften his opponent for a series of harder blows. This week, Russian forces launched a heavy salvo of Iranian Shahed-baseline loitering munitions at Ukrainian cities, attempting to fatigue Kyiv’s air defenses before striking with more potent follow-on Iskander ballistic missiles. While the Ukrainian air defenses’ performance against Russian drones has improved recently, with almost flawless interception rates, the projectiles continue to plague Kyiv.

Ukraine’s lackluster initial response to Moscow’s Kharkiv offensive allowed Russian forces to capture several Ukrainian positions with relative ease. Open-source intelligence (OSINT) indicates that some Ukrainian units were initially unable to coordinate defensive combat operations at scale. Satellite imagery also confirms that Ukraine suffered from gaps in its security zones, the forward areas of its lines of defense. These shortcomings enabled Russian combat formations to make immediate tactical gains and left the Ukrainian General Staff no choice but to order a coordinated withdrawal to stabilize the front lines in accordance with the harsh battlefield geometry.

Ukraine has been further hampered by the Biden administration’s decision to restrict itfrom using US-provided weapons to strike Russian territory. Because the Kremlin launched its Kharkiv assault from the Russian city of Belgorod, Ukrainian forces, despite having detected the attack in advance, could not use their US-provided Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS) to nip the offensive in the bud. Reports suggest that Ukrainian officials have been asking the Biden administration to change its restrictive policy and allow Ukraine to use US-made weapons in preemptive strikes inside Russia.

The situation in Kharkiv remains dangerous: since May 10, Moscow’s war machine has advanced six miles toward the city’s outer ring. While the Ukrainian front has neither collapsed nor suffered breaches at the strategic level, Russian combat formations have made tactical gains and remain on an offensive footing. The Kremlin’s forces have focused their offensive efforts on the Lyptsi and Vovchansk axes. Open-source defense intelligence shows that the Ukrainian Armed Forces have been employing key tactical assets like anti-tank guided missiles and first-person-view (FPV) drones in kamikaze dives to halt the Russian march.

The eastern Ukrainian city of Chasiv Yar remains another hotspot where Russian forces have made tactical gains. Ukraine’s military intelligence chief, General Kyrylo Budanov, warned that Russia could also soon stage an attack in Sumy Oblast to capitalize on its advantages in manpower and equipment and engage Ukrainian forces at multiple flashpoints.

Ukraine’s response to these Russian incursions has relied on asymmetric strike options. Over the past week, Kyiv, despite scarce resources, launched multiple long-range salvos against critical Russian infrastructure. Evidence suggests that in the early morning hours of May 16, Ukrainian forces struck the Belbek Airbase in occupied Crimea with ATACMS tactical ballistic missiles. Home to much of Russia’s aerial deterrent on the occupied Crimean Peninsula, the military airfield also serves as a missile depotSatellite imagery from the impact site suggests that Ukraine’s attack likely damaged several Russian aircraft, including two MiG-31s, a Sukhoi-27, and a MiG-29, as well as S-400 strategic surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries.

In similar recent strikes, Ukraine’s target set reportedly involved a number of cities in the Tula, Bryansk, and Kaluga Oblasts of Russia. On May 16, Kyiv attacked other critical targets both in Crimea and in Russian territory, including oil refineries.

2. Tanks Get a Taste of Drone Warfare in Ukraine

Russia and Ukraine are racing to find effective countermeasures to shield their tanks from kamikaze drones. Both nations face a formidable challenge, as FPV drones and loitering munitions can trace main battle tanks back to their hiding spots.

Drones provide Russia with an asymmetric advantage against Ukraine’s Abrams main battle tanks. Visual evidence suggests that Russia is creating what it has termed “turtle tanks” by covering its existing tanks with layered metal roofs backed up by mesh and grilles to minimize the explosive impact of drones. These countermeasures reportedly reduce the maneuvering and steering capabilities of the vehicles they are designed to protect. Both Ukraine and Russia are also mounting electronic warfare (EW) assets on their main battle tanks.

Some reports suggest that Ukraine, thanks to artillery provided by its Western allies, has learned how to destroy Russia’s turtle tanks. While the tanks’ metal mesh provides sufficient protection against FPV drones, which generally deliver a limited amount of explosives, the measures prove ineffective against artillery rounds with large payloads.

Kyiv’s kamikaze drones have also been eliminating other critical Russian platforms. Last week Ukrainian FPV drones destroyed a TOS-1A heavy flamethrower multiple launch rocket system (MLRS), one of the most lethal assets in the Russian arsenal. And footage released by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense shows that Ukrainian forces also destroyed a Russian Brem-1 armored vehicle, a critical asset for Moscow’s repair and maintenance efforts.

3. New Russian Defense Minister Andrey Belousov Aims to Modernize the Kremlin’s Military

Last week, Russian leadership experienced a significant reshuffle. President Vladimir Putin demoted Nikolai Patrushev, a former KGB director who played a critical role in the annexation of Crimea and the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Patrushev has long been famously close to Putin and was a key figure in the negotiations that suppressed the Wagner uprising. The 72-year-old former spy chief will now assist Russia’s shipbuilding industry.

Putin also removed Sergei Shoigu from his post as defense minister, and appointedAndrei Belousov to replace him. Shoigu, in turn, was named as Patrushev’s replacement as the secretary of the Security Council of Russia. Reports suggest that Putin’s decisions were motivated by what he perceives as a growing need for innovation, dismay over spiraling military spending, and slower than expected progress on the battlefield.

Belousov, with a background in economics and technology, is known for his strong support for domestic defense technologies and heavy investment in drone warfare programs. His appointment as defense minister could have significant implications for Russia’s defense technological industrial base (DTIB) and research and development planning. Up to 95 percent of the subsystems involved in some of Russia’s current drone warfare assets are imported. If Belousov succeeds in his efforts to reverse this trend, he could offer Russia a roadmap to break its drone warfare stalemate against Ukraine.

4. The EU Decides to Use Frozen Russian Assets to Fund Ukraine’s War Effort

Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, reported that the European Union has agreed to use revenues from frozen Russian assets to fund Ukraine’s recovery and defense. News outlets suggest that Kyiv will likely receive the funds, totaling $3.25 billion, in July 2024. This assistance could provide a lifeline for Ukraine ahead of a likely Russian offensive this summer. Yet time is of the utmost importance. Initial plans aimed to deliver the funds to Kyiv last winter, suggesting that the EU must guard against further delays.

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