A ceasefire that wasn't, a missile strike that missed, and prospects for a Ukrainian winter offensive.
Ukraine at D+319: Force generation.
At the end of last week the US, France, and Germany announced major commitments to ship weapons and munitions to Ukraine at an accelerated pace. Breaking Defense summarizes the decisions about equipment. The equipment includes armored fighting vehicles (and German-built Leopard main battle tanks may soon follow, once Poland and Finland receive export permission from Germany to turn over their Leopards to Ukraine) and Sea Sparrow air defense systems. The provision of heavier, direct-fire systems like the Bradley and Marder infantry fighting vehicles suggest that Ukraine is being equipped with weapons suitable for a major offensive.
Details of the US commitment.
The US commitment alone is very large and significant. The US Department of Defense on Friday listed the matériel being furnished under a $3.075 billion aid package:
- 50 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles with 500 TOW anti-tank missiles and 250,000 rounds of 25mm ammunition;
- 100 M113 Armored Personnel Carriers;
- 55 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles (MRAPs);
- 138 High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWVs);
- 18 155mm self-propelled Howitzers and 18 ammunition support vehicles;
- 70,000 155mm artillery rounds;
- 500 precision-guided 155mm artillery rounds;
- 1,200 155mm rounds of Remote Anti-Armor Mine (RAAM) Systems;
- 36 105mm towed Howitzers and 95,000 105mm artillery rounds;
- 10,000 120mm mortar rounds;
- Additional ammunition for High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS);
- RIM-7 missiles for air defense;
- 4,000 Zuni aircraft rockets;
- Approximately 2,000 anti-armor rockets;
- Sniper rifles, machine guns, and ammunition for grenade launchers and small arms;
- Claymore anti-personnel munitions;
- Night vision devices and optics;
- Spare parts and other field equipment.
Looking for more troops and munitions.
Russian and Belarusian forces have continued joint drills, the Guardian reports, raising concern that Russia's smaller, backward ally is coming under more pressure to join active combat operations against Ukraine. How effective Belarusian participation might be remains an open question. Belarusian forces probably suffer from a more serious case of the deficiencies already on display in the Russian army, and if anything Belarusian troops are likely to be unmotivated even by the tepid standards of Russian conscripts. Belarusian security organs say they're conducting exercises designed to test the country's readiness to respond to terrorism, but this probably represents more a demonstration of possibilities to warn off dissent than it does serious anti-terrorism preparation.
Ukrainian military intelligence sources say that Russia is planning to call up five-hundred-thousand conscripts for a summer offensive.
Forbes reports signs that Iran is slow-rolling deliveries of Shahed drones to Russia. Tehran appears to be limiting the number of drones shipped, with reduced deliveries planned to extend to October. Iran is also limiting those drones slated for delivery to a reduced range and payload capacity. The slowdown seems motivated by a desire to avoid falling too far afoul of international sanctions.
The Christmas cease-fire had little effect on combat.
The Russian Christmas cease-fire seems to have had little effect. On Saturday, Orthodox Christmas itself, the UK's Ministry of Defence (MoD) reported, "Fighting has continued at a routine level into the Orthodox Christmas period. One of the most fiercely contested sectors continues to be around the town of Kremina, in Luhansk Oblast. In the last three weeks, the fighting around Kremina has focused on the heavily forested terrain to the west of the town. With the coniferous woodland providing some cover from air observation even in winter, both sides are highly likely struggling to accurately adjust artillery fire. As is typical with operations in forests, combat has largely devolved to dismounted infantry fighting, often at short range. Russian commanders will highly likely view pressure around Kremina as a threat to the right flank of their Bakhmut sector, which they see as key for enabling any future advance to occupy the remainder of Donetsk Oblast."
Possible Ukrainian offensives.
Fighting may soon resume in the Zaporizhzhia Oblast. The UK's MoD assessed, in its Sunday morning situation report, "In recent weeks, Russia has bolstered defensive fortifications in central Zaporizhzhia Oblast, southern Ukraine, especially between the towns of Vasilyvka and Orikhiv. Russia maintains a large force in this sector. The way Russia has worked on improving defences suggests commanders are highly likely pre-occupied with the potential for major Ukrainian offensive action in two sectors: either in northern Luhansk Oblast, or in Zaporizhzhia. A major Ukrainian breakthrough in Zaporizhzhia would seriously challenge the viability of Russia’s ‘land bridge’ linking Russia’s Rostov region and Crimea; Ukrainian success in Luhansk would further undermine Russia’s professed war aim of ‘liberating’ the Donbas. Deciding which of these threats to prioritise countering is likely one of the central dilemmas for Russian operational planners."
Other observers also find a coming Ukrainian offensive likely. For one thing, as the ground freezes harder, mobile action becomes easier. The Russians have entrenched for positional warfare, and in any case have shown small aptitude for maneuver in the face of opposition.
Risk avoidance and Russian employment of combat aircraft.
The MoD this morning noted the reluctance of Russian commanders to employ advanced aircraft in anything but a stand-off role as missile platforms. "Since at least June 2022, Russian Aerospace Forces have almost certainly used Su-57 FELON to conduct missions against Ukraine. FELON is Russia's most advanced fifth-generation supersonic combat jet, employing stealth technologies and highly advanced avionics.These missions have likely been limited to flying over Russian territory, launching long range air-to-surface or air-to-air missiles into Ukraine. Recent commercially available imagery shows five FELON parked at Akhtubinsk Air Base, which hosts the 929th Flight Test Centre. As this is the only known FELON base, these aircraft have likely been involved in operations against Ukraine. Russia is highly likely prioritising avoiding the reputational damage, reduced export prospects, and the compromise of sensitive technology which would come from any loss of FELON over Ukraine. This is symptomatic of Russia’s continued risk-averse approach to employing its air force in the war. Defence Intelligence analysis of this satellite image, dated 25 December 2022, identified five Su-57 FELON multirole aircraft at Akhtubinsk airfield, Russia."
An alternative account of the targeting at Makiivka.
NEXTA, a video news outlet operated by Belarusian dissidents from Poland, has a video made by a Russian soldier who was wounded in the HIMARS strike against the temporary barracks in Makiivka. Contrary to Russian Ministry of Defense reports (which blamed soldiers' careless use of cellphones for betraying their position), the soldier (who subsequently died of his wounds) says that the troops had been assembled in the auditorium of the occupied school in order to hear President Putin's New Year's address. "All the locals," he said, knew the troops were being collected in the building. If accurate, the soldier's account places the onus of poor tactical practice and atrocious operations security squarely on the local commanders.
And an alternative account of Russian retaliation for Makiivaka.
Meanwhile, yesterday the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that it had killed over six-hundred Ukrainian soldiers in a "retaliatory" strike designed to exact retribution for Makiivka. The AP says "The Russian Defense Ministry said its missiles hit two temporary bases housing 1,300 Ukrainian troops in Kramatorsk, in the eastern Donetsk region, killing 600 of them. Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said the strikes were retaliation for Ukraine’s attack in Makiivka, in which at least 89 Russian soldiers died. Serhii Cherevatyi, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s forces in the east, told The Associated Press that Russian strikes on Kramatorsk damaged only civilian infrastructure, adding: 'The armed forces of Ukraine weren’t affected.' Reports on the ground are consistent with Kyiv's account. They indicate that the strike was unsuccessful: the missiles failed to hit their targets, and in any case the Ukrainian soldiers weren't there. "On Sunday, reporters in Kramatorsk, Donbas, shared photos which showed the strikes missed their targets and further claimed no one was inside the barracks at the time of the blast," the Telegraph writes. The Russian announcement seems to be a face-saving attempt to mollify domestic outrage over the casualties at Makiivka.
Phishing continues to target Moldova.
Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Moldova has felt more uneasy than any other country in the Near Abroad except Ukraine itself. There are too many parallels to Ukraine's situation for comfort. Like Ukraine, Moldova has received hostile Russian attention in cyberspace. Ukraine has seen factitious liberation movements seek to detach Donetsk and Luhansk; Moldova has an even longer history of Russian-sponsored secession in Transnistria. The Record reports that Moldova's government has, over the past week, seen a surge in phishing attempts seeking to compromise official and corporate networks. These efforts have been accompanied by impersonation campaigns that misrepresent themselves as communications originating with senior Moldovan officials.