Hudson Institute

Ukraine Military Situation Report | March 29

Senior Fellow (Nonresident)
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A Mi-24 helicopter takes off for a combat mission against Russian forces on March 25, 2023, in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine. (Taras Ibragimov via Getty Images)

1. Russia Nuclearizes Belarus

Russian President Vladimir Putin stated on March 25 that he is preparing to store tactical nukes in Belarus, and Russian news outlets reported that the storage facilities required to do so will be ready by July 2023. Putin continued his escalatory nuclear rhetoric in an attempt to forestall further Western military assistance to Ukraine. 

His move hardly comes as a surprise—the Kremlin has been hinting at such a provocative move for some time. Belarus has already received the dual-capable variant of the Iskander tactical ballistic missile certified for nuclear combat payload delivery. In August 2022, Russia also upgraded the Belarusian Su-24 frontline bomber aircraft fleet for nuclear strike roles. And since the early stages of their invasion of Ukraine, the Russian Aerospace Forces have been using Belarusian territory for Mig-31K interceptor aircraft sorties, pounding Ukraine with dual-capable Khinzal aero-ballistic missiles. 

This is not the first time the Kremlin has used Belarus as a pawn on its nuclear chessboard. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union placed tactical and strategic nukes on Belarusian soil, including a quarter of its “Topol” (SS-25) intercontinental ballistic missiles. When the USSR fell, Minsk made a show of these weapons’ removal. The re-nuclearization of Belarus, therefore, is a telling indicator of the revanchist motivations of Russia’s ruling elite. Putin’s stumbling invasion and its economic consequences have only further driven Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko into Russia’s patronage. Thus, further sanctioning Belarus would offer little, if any, deterrence. The West should instead counter Russia’s escalation in two ways.

First, it should focus on empowering the Belarusian opposition. Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s recent appearance on CNN voicing harsh criticism of the Kremlin was a promising step in this direction. Pro-Kyiv Belarusian paramilitary activity in Ukraine might offer some help too. (This report’s previous editions assessed the Belarusian armed opposition’s capabilities, demonstrated in a sensational drone attack on a Russian A-50 Beriev aircraft inside Belarusian territory.) Empowering the Belarusian opposition would not necessarily catalyze regime change in Minsk, especially since the Lukashenko regime has tightened its grip on the nation’s security apparatus and intensified its pressure on the opposition. But Western leaders should make it clear that Lukashenko does not have a future in Europe’s political order.

Second, NATO leaders should officially repudiate the Russia-NATO Founding Act. Such a declaration would not go so far as to extend an allied tactical nuclear presence to the Baltics or Poland. But it would signal to the Kremlin that the alliance retains the political flexibility to respond in kind to its escalations. 

2. Russia Upgrades Its Unguided Aerial Bombs

Recently obtained open-source intelligence shows that Russia is adding wing kits to its dumb aerial bombs—in this case to its FAB-500 M62s. 

Initial examination of this 1,100-pound high-explosive weapon suggests that the wing kits alone will not bring the FAB baseline up to the standards of Western Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs). The wing kits, however, can offer Russian pilots some protection from Ukraine’s low-to-mid-altitude air defenses. If realized, this would mark a critical improvement for Russian airpower. Since the outset of the invasion, a dearth of smart munitions has forced Russian pilots to fly at lower altitudes where they are susceptible to Ukraine’s air defenses. In many cases, even relatively advanced Russian aircraft, such as the Su-30 and Su-34, were intercepted by Ukrainian man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS). 

Hudson Institute’s Ukraine Military Situation Report will continue to monitor the modified Russian aerial bombs’ combat performances. 

3. Ukraine Continues Joint Drone Warfare Operations

On March 22, the Ukrainian military used unmanned surface combatants and aerial drones to attack the Sevastopol base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in occupied Crimea. While Russian sources confirmed the attack, they claimed it was successfully repelled.

The Ukrainian theater continues to serve as a laboratory for robotic warfare concepts of operations (CONOPS) and weapons-system development efforts. Even erstwhile outsiders, like the Islamic Republic of Iran with its Shahed-131 and Shahed-136 loitering munitions, have used the conflict to collect invaluable data about their drone warfare assets’ combat performances.

The Ukrainian military has also proven a remarkably quick study when it comes to robotic warfare operations. On October 29, 2022, Ukraine conducted an attack with naval and aerial drones on the Russian frigate Admiral Makarov in Sevastopol. As Ukraine continues to sharpen its joint drone warfare prowess, the Russian Armed Forces will find it harder to maintain freedom of movement and critical base security in the Black Sea. NATO nations of the Black Sea littoral will also learn many lessons in boosting their military capabilities against future Russian aggression. 

4. Western Tanks Arrive in Ukraine Ahead of Kyiv’s Anticipated Counteroffensive

Ukraine has received its first Leopard 2 main battle tanks from Germany. According to the German Ministry of Defense, 18 pieces of Leopard 2A6 tanks, along with two armored recovery vehicles, recently arrived to bolster Ukraine. 

Kyiv has previously received four Leopards from Poland and is awaiting six Leopard 2A4s from Spain. In the meantime, British Challenger 2 transfers remain on track; indeed, Ukrainian defense minister Oleksii Reznikov stated this week that the first Challenger 2s have already joined the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ ranks. Marders, Cougars, and Strykers are also on their way to Kyiv to improve its supply of infantry fighting vehicles. But Ukrainian fighters will have to wait months to receive American Abrams main battle tanks. 

The military import of heavy armor looms large ahead of the long-awaited Ukrainian counteroffensive. To achieve victory, Kyiv will have to cut deep into Russian defenses and rapidly outflank disorganized Russian combat formations. To its credit, Ukraine’s tank arsenal is fast becoming the most diversified armor deterrent of the twenty-first century: while Kyiv operates old Soviet tanks and captured Russian variants such as the T-72, it boasts an interesting mix of Western tanks as well. This varied arsenal will inevitably bring operational complications—even the Leopard 2A6’s 55-caliber main guns dwarf the Leopard 2A4’s 44-caliber guns. Nevertheless, at a time when the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation are fighting with dinosaurs like the T-54/55 main battle tank, even a mixed arsenal can make a real difference for Ukraine.

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