War in Ukraine – weekly update (13-19.02.2023)
Ukraine Frontline Update
This week’s missile strikes have seen Ukrainian air defences at a record low, failing to shoot down the majority of Russian ordnance. Russian forces continue offensive operations in the Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv Oblasts, however without any major strategic gains. On the eastern border of Kharkiv Oblast, Russian troops push towards Kupyansk and Dvorichna, securing minimal gains. Russians are advancing from Kreminna towards Lyman, located around 25-30 km northeast of the strategically important city of Slovyansk. Ukrainian Eastern Group of Forces spokesperson Colonel Serhii Cherevaty noted that Russian forces conducted a record number of artillery strikes in this region, serving to support ongoing offensive operations. It was also previously noted that in this sector of the front Russian troops utilised more elite formations and equipment, including the Air Assault Brigades of the VDV (Vozdushno-desantnye Voyska – Russian Airborne Forces) and highly advanced BMPT Terminator infantry fighting vehicles.
These advances could be seen as the first stages of the anticipated major Russian offensive. In the Bakhmut area Russian troops are contesting the E-40 Slovyansk-Bakhmut highway, a vital logistics and supply line of Ukrainian defenders. In western Bakhmut Ukrainian forces managed to recapture the T0504 highway, reopening this ground line of communications, however fighting in the vicinity is ongoing. Russian assaults on the city are continuing, with minimal gains. Further fighting is developing in the outskirts of Donetsk city, currently with little change to the frontline or noteworthy achievements. In Vuhledar Ukrainian forces managed to repel Russian assaults, though Russian forces including units of Naval Infantry, DNR, and other formations continue to press the attack. Russians also continue to deplete the Khakovka Dam reservoir, this threatens the ability of the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant to cool its reactors. Other sections of the front have not seen any noteworthy activity.
Another batch of western equipment for Ukraine
The West continues its pledge of support to the Ukrainian armed forces, with new equipment being sent to the frontlines. Late January was a period of unfaltering support of Ukraine with many countries for the first time pledging western made Main Battle Tanks, such as Leopard 2 and M1 Abrams. This week several sightings of the equipment have been made, with Polish PT-91 tanks, a modified T-72M1 of Polish design, spotted in transport towards Ukraine. A large number of American made vehicles have also been spotted being unloaded in the German port Bremerhaven, including the famous M2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles. This week has also seen an extensive debate on the recent decision made by Germany, along with several other western European countries to send older Leopard 1 tanks to Ukraine, in an effort to quickly boost Ukrainian armour capabilities.
The debate revolves around the suitability of the older Leopards in contemporary conflict. The tanks were produced with light armour, favouring speed over heavy protection, this was done also due to the technological limitations of the 1960s when the vehicles were designed. They are also armed with a smaller 105mm cannon, though still very capable. The tanks also lack maintenance and logistics support, with ammunition and spare parts no longer produced and available in a dwindling supply, though the ammunition production is to be restarted soon. While the Leopard 1s are plagued with all manner of problems they could still be very useful to the armed forces of Ukraine, currently in desperate need of more armoured vehicles of every type. Leopard 1s could provide that, serving to support the newly pledged modern tanks, and bridging the gap before more of the advanced systems are available, as the available stock can be relatively quickly repaired and refitted, with around 25 tanks ready for deployment before summer.[i]
Ukrainian troops train on western equipment
This week marked an important milestone in the delivery of aid and support to the Ukrainian armed forces. Ukrainian soldiers travelled to training grounds in Germany and Poland to begin training on the newly promised Leopard 2 main battle tanks.[ii] There is hope that these new engines will alter the course of war in Ukraine, allowing for better defence of contested frontlines and a swift counteroffensive. The Leopard 2 tanks are often seen as superior to the tanks used by Russian forces, with powerful cannons and state of the art defence systems, increasing the tanks and its crew’s survivability in combat operations. However, before these vehicles can be brought into action Ukrainian crews will have to master their controls, which can cause quite a challenge. The first and most noticeable difference for Ukrainian soldiers will be the addition of another crew member, as western made tanks are designed for four crewmen, rather than three as in Soviet designed tanks. The difference comes from the fact that western tanks do not have an autoloader for their main cannon, instead a separate crewmember is responsible for loading the weapon. This is done mostly as a safety precaution for the crew, greatly increasing their survivability if their vehicle is hit. This is but one of many challenges that Ukrainian troops will encounter during their training, with a plethora of other systems being different. The training usually takes two months, but Polish instructors said that it can be shortened by about half.[iii] As stated by one of the training tutor’s Ukrainian soldiers are very capable and motivated, and learn at a very fast pace. The first tanks, along with their crews are meant to be sent to the front in early March to bolster the Ukrainian war effort.
On Tuesday February 14th, Ukraine’s Minister of Defence Oleksiy Reznikov met with delegations from 54 countries at NATO headquarters in Brussels. In an interview Reznikov stated that he heard clear messages of support from all representatives, standing united with Ukraine’s struggle against the Russian invasion. Reznikov also declared that a report was presented to the participant, examining and verifying the use of NATO systems by the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Andrii Sybiha, deputy head of the President’s Office of Ukraine, stated that he hopes the Ramstein 9 meeting would focus on the issue of providing aircraft to Ukraine.[iv] Interestingly enough the results of this Ramstein meeting have been kept particularly quiet, with statements of support and unity but few concrete pledges. Quite possibly the aircraft question was discussed, as it was heavily debated in previous weeks, and either no decision was made or it is kept temporarily secret for security reasons. The issue of providing fighter planes to Ukraine is extremely complex. Firstly familiar to Ukrainian pilots, Soviet designed aircraft are in low supply in the western coalition, thus any potential transfer would have to include western made systems. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has recently asked the Ministry of Defence to assess options for giving fighting aircraft to Ukraine, though no pledges have been made. The modern F-35s are out of the question as they form the elite core of British Air Force and demand a greenlight from the US (and possibly several other countries included in the programme), thus the potential options of Eurofighter Typhoons was highlighted. First generation of these fighters (Tranche 1) is soon to be retired from the British Air Force and could provide significant support in the fight against Russian aircraft, with existing though limited options to engage ground targets.[v] These, however, are unfamiliar to Ukrainian personnel and would require long periods of training in order to be effectively used. Secondly Ukraine lacks proper infrastructure needed to maintain and facilitate western aircraft. Furthermore, Russian layered and extensive air defence system would heavily hamper the Eurofighters ability in frontline areas. Thus, the issue of providing Ukraine with aircraft remains unresolved.
Author: Sebastian Czub, analyst in Casimir Pulaski Foundation
Supported by a grant from the Open Society Initiative for Europe within the Open Society Foundations
[i] Krzysztof Fijałek, “Niemcy. Zgoda na wysłanie 178 czołgów Leopard 1 na Ukrainę”, RMF24, February 7, 2023, https://www.rmf24.pl/raporty/raport-wojna-z-rosja/news-niemcy-zgoda-na-wyslanie-178-czolgow-leopard-1-na-ukraine,nId,6583084#crp_state=1.
[ii] Matthias Gebauer, “Bundeswehr beginnt mit Ausbildung ukrainischer Soldaten am Leopard 2”, Spiegel, February 11, 2023, https://www.spiegel.de/politik/leopard-2-panzer-bundeswehr-beginnt-mit-ausbildung-ukrainischer-soldaten-a-f5611bc8-8956-48b9-9ca8-6c33c38f426f.
[iii] Deutsche Welle, “Ukraińscy żołnierze trenują na leopardach w Polsce”, Deutsche Welle, February 15, 2023, https://www.dw.com/pl/ukrai%C5%84scy-%C5%BCo%C5%82nierze-trenuj%C4%85-na-leopardach-w-polsce/av-64708281.
[iv] The Kyiv Independent news desk, “Reznikov leaves for Ramstein-9 summit, names main issues on agenda”, The Kyiv Independent, February 13, 2023, https://kyivindependent.com/news-feed/reznikov-leaves-for-ramstein-9-summit-names-main-issues-on-agenda.
[v] Justin Bronk, “Giving RAF Typhoons to Ukraine Would Be a Very Expensive Symbolic Gesture”, Royal United Services Institute, February 9, 2023, https://rusi.org/explore-our-research/publications/commentary/giving-raf-typhoons-ukraine-would-be-very-expensive-symbolic-gesture.