Ukraine Military Situation Report | May 29

Senior Fellow (Nonresident)
Ukraine Military Situation Report | May 29
A Ukrainian soldier fires artillery as Russia-Ukraine War continues on May 25, 2024, in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine. (Photo by Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu via Getty Images)

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

Executive Summary

  • As Russia indiscriminately bombards Kharkiv to depopulate the city, the tactical situation grows tense for Ukraine.
  • The Russian military may be preparing to reinforce its offensive combat operations in Kharkiv.
  • Using Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS) supplied by the United States, the Ukrainian Armed Forces sank a Russian missile corvette.
  • The Russian military has started tactical nuclear drills, threatening the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Battlefield Assessment

This week Russia targeted the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv with growing intensity. The Kremlin’s war machine has been simultaneously pursuing three principal objectives there: deliberately targeting civilians to depopulate the area, advancing into the city’s outer ring to bring its urban core within tube artillery range, and forcing the Ukrainian Armed Forces to allocate troops for defensive efforts. While Russia has not yet scored a breakthrough, it presses on.

Kharkiv remains contested at the tactical and strategic levels. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that Ukraine has deployed its 82nd Air Assault Brigade and 57th Motorized Brigade to run defensive combat operations. Visuals from the battleground depict the 82nd Air Assault Brigade using Stryker infantry fighting vehicles to combat the Russian invasion in Vovchansk. The Ukrainian General Staff’s initial assessment concluded that Kyiv’s combat formations have stabilized the situation following quick Russian gains along the front lines.

Clashes have also intensified in Vovchansk, Tykhi, and Lyptsi. Battlefield reports suggest that the Russian military has been pouring troops, firepower, and new platforms into the fight. Moreover, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy recently indicated that the Russian military is amassing another grouping of forces near the Kharkiv sector. Depending on the size of these follow-on forces, the situation could become even more perilous for Ukraine.

Since its attacks in the 1990s on the Chechen city of Grozny, Moscow has employed the strategy of intentionally depopulating a city before staging a full-scale incursion. It is now implementing that tactic in Kharkiv with overwhelming air salvos. On May 25, the Russian Aerospace Forces attacked a Kharkiv mall, deliberately targeting Ukraine’s civilian population. President Zelenskyy personally notified the nation of this strike, which caused many civilian casualties. In another incident during the night of May 22, Russian forces struck Kharkiv with dozens of missiles and glide bombs, killing seven people. Russia also hit Vivat, one of Ukraine’s most prominent publishing houses. This incident highlights the cultural dimension of the war—signaling Russia’s intent to destroy Ukraine’s heritage as well as its buildings.

In other sectors, Moscow continued to launch drone and missile strikes against Ukraine’s infrastructure. General Mykola Oleshchuk, the commander of the Ukrainian Air Force, reported that Russia launched barrages of Iranian-originated Shahed-136 and Shahed-131 drones from Primorsko-Akhtarsk, Krasnodar Krai, Kursk Oblast, and occupied Crimea. In recent weeks, Ukrainian air defenses scored high interception rates against Iranian drone warfare systems employed by Russian forces.

Despite this air defense success, the Russian military could completely capture the tactically critical eastern Ukrainian town of Chasiv Yar. While Russian troops have been unable to enter the city thus far, they have managed to depopulate the town and secure key footholds there.

Last week, Ukraine continued to capitalize on its asymmetrical advantage over Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. According to Western assessments, over one-third of the fleet has been taken out of action, showcasing Kyiv’s success against Russia’s critical naval capabilities. Per Ukrainian official sources, on May 19 Ukrainian forces employed US-supplied Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS) to sink the Russian missile corvette Tsiklon.

Ukraine’s indigenous naval drones and Western long-range strike assets, such as Storm Shadow missiles and ATACMS, continue to exert a significant strain on Russia’s naval forces. In addition, Ukraine is constantly innovating to maximize the efficiency of its existing assets. Ukrainian unmanned surface vehicles (USVs), such as the headline-making Sea Baby, now feature multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS), providing the vehicles more firepower against Russian naval platforms.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s new mobilization law has come into effect, allowing tens of thousands of new personnel to join the fight. As such, the Ukrainian military’s need for mechanized platforms will also increase. Recent defense assistance packages from the West have provided only temporary help for Ukraine’s acute problems. Kyiv’s army still lacks artillery shells, anti-tank missiles, air defense interceptors, and High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) rockets. Forthcoming transfers from Ukraine’s Western allies will need to include large numbers of armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles to ensure that Ukraine has the force protection capabilities that its newly formed combat formations require. This is important as Kyiv will likely be unable to execute another mobilization before the end of the war.

Russia Kicks Off Tactical Nuclear Drills

Last week, Russia initiated the first stage of tactical nuclear drills designed to send a threatening message to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union amid their member states’ deepening support for Ukraine.

Featuring dual-use Iskander tactical ballistic missiles and Kinzhal aeroballistic missiles, the drills showcased Russia’s tactical nuclear delivery capabilities. Reports by the Russian Ministry of Defense suggest that its forces are practicing tasks that involve obtaining special ammunition for the Iskander tactical missile system, equipping the missiles with launch vehicles, and covertly advancing to designated positions in preparation for launches.

The location and the scope of these drills are also telling. Directed by the 12th Main Directorate of the Russian Ministry of Defense, the first stage of the exercises kicked off in Russia’s Southern Military District adjacent to Ukraine, as well as in regions of illegally annexed Ukrainian territory. Belarus, reported to be a potential springboard for Russia’s tactical nukes, will be assuming a more visible and active role in the next stages of the exercise. Previous editions of this report have drawn attention to the Kremlin’s plans to use Belarus to house nuclear weapons on NATO’s border.

Russia’s nuclear doctrine defines one role of the country’s nuclear deterrent as “the preclusion of the escalation of military actions and their cessation . . . on conditions acceptable to the Russian Federation.” At the outset of its invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin placed Russia on a nuclear footing, ordering high combat alert for its strategic forces. Ahead of NATO’s July 2024 summit in Washington, DC, the alliance should design a firmer approach to Russia’s nuclear bullying and assume escalation dominance against the last generation of the former Soviet intelligence apparatus to control Russia.

Russia’s Defense Technological and Industrial Base (DTIB) Is Recovering More Quickly Than the West Expected

Certain segments of Russia’s defense technological and industrial base (DTIB) are recovering their capabilities despite two years of war, alarming NATO leaders. Both Russia’s current and projected rates of artillery shell production, for example, outpace those of Europe and the US combined. Moscow’s heavy armor and missile manufacturing capabilities also have shown resilience.

Several factors are fueling the recovery of Russia’s defense industries. First, a top-down hierarchy guides the Kremlin’s military and strategic affairs. This strict and authoritarian structure helps Russia rebuild its fighting forces at an alarming pace through mobilization and conscription. Second, thanks to a three-fold increase in its defense budget, Russia is now able to replace lost military hardware and boost salaries in relevant industries. At President Vladimir Putin’s direction, Moscow is now spending some six percent of its GDP on defense. The recent reshuffle in the Russian Ministry of Defense indicates how much the Kremlin prioritizes the recovery of its defense industry.

Third, with the help of Iran, China, and North Korea, Russia has managed to repair its platforms and meet its production requirements in critical segments such as artillery shells and loitering munitions. Besides partnering with these nations to bolster its defense industry, the Kremlin has used its allies to evade Western sanctions and access the materials it needs.

The Russian military is still dangerous, and the assumption that it cannot sustain a long war is as naïve as it is flawed. Russia will continue to pose a formidable threat to NATO for the foreseeable future.

Subscribe to Hudson’s Re: Ukraine Newsletter Here