War in Ukraine – weekly update (13.05-19.05.2023)
The battle for Bakhmut continues. Ukrainian forces have launched a series of counter offensives in the Bakhmut area. The operations focused on the city’s flanks to the northwest around Khromove and Bohdanivka, and to the southwest around Ivanivske and the T0504 road.iAccording to Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrsky, the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, Russian forces have been pushed back up to 2 kilometres back.iiThese gains allowed Ukrainians to re-establish control over the key supply and evacuation routes to Bakhmut. These successes showcase the offensive capabilities of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, being able to effectively fight against a theoretically superior enemy in their prioritised area of operations. However, Ukrainian successes might be insignificant when considering the fate of Bakhmut. According to the latest information, Russian forces have achieved further gains in the city itself. Ukrainian defensive positions in the settlement’s western outskirts, based around the Yuvileina street have now been reached and in some cases taken by the Russians. Ukrainian forces now control only several blocks worth of territory within the city itself, and are being continuously pushed back.
Based on these observations it is possible that Russia has prioritised operations within Bakhmut itself at the cost of holding the flanks of the city. While Ukrainian advances are a considerable success, they might not be considered significant losses for the Russians themselves. Russian major operations in the previous months were meant to facilitate the taking of the city of Bakhmut. The operation on the south west flank was aimed to cut off Ukrainian defenders from supplies and evacuation through the T0504 highway through Ivanivskie, while similar actions on the northwestern flank were supposed to interdict the road through Khromove. The importance of these positions was only as high due to their key ability to maintain the garrison within Bakhmut. However, now as the Russian frocks control the vast majority of the city, with only several blocks in the western outskirts still in Ukrainian control, it is not needed to block supplies. Thus, despite losing ground on the flanks of the city Russian forces might still consider this outcome as a success.
Based on the findings above it is possible to notice that Russian forces in the Bakhmut might be attempting to establish a more fixed defensive line in the area. With the high material and manpower cost of offensive operation in the Bakhmut area Russian forces might be trying to transition into defensive operations in order to prepare for the upcoming Ukrainian counter offensive. As can be noticed Ukrainian counter attacks in the southwest have stopped in front of Russian positions on the hills surrounding Klishchiivka. These hills provide Russians with a key position on a high ground, overlooking much of the territory recently retaken by Ukrainian forces (Russian positions rest on hills roughly 250-270 metres high while Ukrainians are now positioned on terrain around 230-240 metres high) . To the northwest Russian forces have probably reverted to positions around Dubovo-Vasylivka and the E-40 highway, both of which have been in Russian hands for months now. At the same time, the intensification of effort within Bakhmut itself to capture the entirety of the city might serve to anchor the entirety of the Russian defensive line in the region. It is quite possible that Russians aim to use Bakhmut in the upcoming Ukrainian counteroffensive in the same manner as the Ukrainians did during the Russian winter offensive – as a fortress. Russian might attempt to force Ukrainian forces into a costly siege, or if the Ukrainians restrain from the attack on the city, threaten Ukrainian flanks if they attack Russian positions either to the north or south of the city. Thus, it is possible that Russian forces in the Bakhmut area are prioritising the capture of Bakhmut in order to establish a considerable defensive line in order to thwart the Ukrainian spring offensive.
As the Russian war industry is being geared up in preparation for an increased period of operation in the spring and summer, three hypersonic missile scientists are arrested for treason. On May 16th the employees of the Novosibirsk Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics published an open letter stating that Valery Zvyagintsev, doctor of technical sciences and chief researcher who founded the laboratory of high-speed aerodynamics at the institute has been arrested on the charges of treason.iiiZvyagintsev has joined two other scientists from the institute that have also been accused of treason last year, namely Aleksandr Shiplyuk, the Director of the Institute and Anatoly Maslov the chief researcher. Shiplyuk and Maslov were arrested on the suspicion of transferring critical information on hypersonic missile technology to China. The combined arrests of these three scientists will most probably result in the crippling of the efficiency of the Institute and the development and production of Russian hypersonic missiles, like the Kinzhal which have been used to strike Ukraine. As stated by the remaining scientists from the Institute “We simply don’t understand how to continue our craft,”.ivIt is possible that the arrest of Valery Zvyagintsev is the direct result of the use of the hypersonic missiles in Ukraine and their failure to overcome Ukrainian air defences. According to available information, and statements of Russian officials including Putin himself, Russian Kinzhal missiles were supposed to overcome even the most advanced air defences, including the US made Patriot system. However, recently Ukraine has successfully used the Patriot system to shoot down incoming Kinzhal missiles. This event coincided with Zvyagintsev’s arrest.
Chinese Special Envoy visit in Ukraine
Beijing’s newly appointed special envoy for the Ukraine war Li Hui has arrived in Kyiv this week as part of the Chinese effort to promote a peace plan. The Chinese representative and Ukrainian leaders discussed Beijing’s plan for ending and resolving the conflict. China has previously presented a peace plan in the United Nations – plan which was heavily criticised and rejected by Ukraine and the Western states as an appeasement of Russian territorial aggression. It seems this week’s meeting in Kyiv walked a similar path, with the Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba reminding on several occasions that peace depended on the “respect of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine”.vKuleba, according to the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry statement, also “emphasised that Ukraine does not accept any proposals that would involve the loss of its territories or the freezing of the conflict”.viAs of now the meeting does not seem to have achieved any results, though Kuleba stressed that the involvement of China is crucial in order to achieve Zelensky’s “peace formula”.vii
Western Support for Ukraine
The coalition of Western states continues to support Ukraine, with further aid packages and transports of key resources being delivered to the war torn country. However, despite the ongoing international cooperation effort some cracks begin to form. The United Kingdom announced that Ukrainian pilots will be trained on the F-16 fighter jets.viiiThis is the first official statement on training Ukrainian personnel in the use of Western aircraft. Furthermore, along with the training the UK along with the Netherlands are pushing to provide Ukraine with the F-16 fighters. This endeavour was swiftly supported by the words of the French President Emmanuel Macron stating that France is ready to train Ukrainian pilots. However, the US declared that it would not send any F-16 fighters to Ukraine, nor would it conduct the training of Ukrainian pilots on these platforms.ixAccording to some sources the US remains unconvinced that Ukraine requires the Western jets to effectively wage the war. The US has however, given the green light for allied countries to train Ukrainian pilots as well as donate the US made F-16s to the Ukrainian Armed Forces.xPoland has also joined in on the matter, however taking up a neutral position between the two sides. In the words of the Polish President Andrzej Duda, Poland will not supply Ukraine with F-16 aircraft as it requires the jets to protect its own airspace.xiAs Poland is now delivering its soviet era aircraft to Ukraine the very few Polish F-16s now form the bulk, potentially the entirety, of the Polish Air Force. President Duda, has stated however, that Poland is open to training Ukrainian pilots on the F-16 platforms. The Western coalition has faced similar disputes in the past, for example regarding the sending of Western made tanks to Ukraine, and has always been able to reach a consensus. It is quite possible that in the end Ukraine will get the F-16s, similarly to the tanks which were also heavily debated in the past. In the meantime Ukraine is being supported by other means, including very generous US aid packages worth billions of dollars.
With the Ukrainian counterattacks in Bakhmut and Russian challenges on the home front Ukraine is gaining momentum. However, despite this Russian forces continue to capture Bakhmut, now with only a few blocks in the hands of Ukrainians. As both sides are preparing for the upcoming spring offensive the upcoming weeks might be decisive. With this in mind the Western debates on sending F-16 fighter jets into Ukraine spark a question – is the West doing enough or is it heading to repeat the events of the past giving “too little, too late”?
Author: Sebastian Czub, Analyst at Casimir Pulaski Foundation
iGrace Mappes et al., “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 18, 2023”, Press ISW, May 18, 2023, https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-may-18-2023.
iiJulia Kesaieva et al., “Ukraine says counterattacks effective near Bakhmut, after Wagner chief accuses Russian brigade of fleeing”, CNN, May 11, 2023, https://edition.cnn.com/2023/05/11/europe/bakhmut-counterattacks-underway-intl/index.html.
iiiYevhen Kizilov, “Russia detains hypersonic missile engineers for treason”, Ukrainska Pravda, May 17, 2023, https://www.pravda.com.ua/eng/news/2023/05/17/7402669/.
iv“3 Russian Hypersonic Missile Scientists Jailed for Treason, Colleagues Say”, The Moscow Times, May 17, 2023, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2023/05/16/3-russian-hypersonic-missile-scientists-jailed-for-treasoncolleagues-say-a81155.
vAgence France-Presse, “Ukraine tells China envoy it will not give up territory to Russia as price of peace”, The Guardian, May 18, 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/may/18/ukraine-tells-china-envoy-it-will-not-give-up-territory-to-russia-as-price-of-peace.
viAgence France-Presse, “Ukraine tells China envoy it will not give up territory to Russia as price of peace”, The Guardian, May 18, 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/may/18/ukraine-tells-china-envoy-it-will-not-give-up-territory-to-russia-as-price-of-peace.
viiSimone McCarthy, “China’s special envoy met Zelensky during two-day Ukraine visit, Beijing says”, CNN, May 18, 2023, https://edition.cnn.com/2023/05/17/china/china-special-envoy-ukraine-europe-peace-talks-intl-hnk/index.html.
viiiLara Jakes and Eric Schmitt, “The Latest Flash Point Among Ukraine’s Allies Is Whether to Send F-16s”, The New York Times, May 17, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/05/17/world/europe/ukraine-f-16-biden-netherlands-britain.html.
ixLara Jakes and Eric Schmitt, “The Latest Flash Point Among Ukraine’s Allies Is Whether to Send F-16s”, The New York Times, May 17, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/05/17/world/europe/ukraine-f-16-biden-netherlands-britain.html.
xNatasha Bertrand, Kylie Atwood and Oren Liebermann, “US signals to allies it won’t block their export of F-16 jets to Ukraine”, CNN, May 19, 2023, https://edition.cnn.com/2023/05/18/politics/us-allies-f-16-jets-ukraine/index.html.
xi“Polska nie przekaże Ukrainie samolotów F-16. Prezydent Duda: mamy ich za mało”, Business Insider, May 17, 2023, https://businessinsider.com.pl/wiadomosci/polska-nie-przekaze-ukrainie-samolotow-f-16-prezydent-duda-mamy-ich-za-malo/nxvhsh4.