Ukraine Situation Report: Fall Of Mariupol May Be Imminent
The fate of the last holdout of Ukrainian forces in Mariupol is uncertain as buses are moving at least some of them to Russian medical facilities.
The Russian Ministry of Defense claims that it is providing safe passage for wounded Ukrainian personnel to leave the besieged Avozstal steelworks in the southern port city of Mariupol. Despite reports framing this as a humanitarian evacuation, there are indications that these individuals are being transferred to a Russian-backed separatist-controlled military hospital and detained in the process. There are also unconfirmed reports that this may be part of a larger deal to finally surrender Azovstal, which has been the last bastion of Ukrainian forces defending Mariupol for weeks now.
In the eastern part of the country, the Ukrainian military has so far been able to rebuff all significant attempts by Russian forces to cross the Donets River, according to the Pentagon. A senior U.S. defense official said today that Russia's units are unlikely to make any real headway unless they can bring more firepower to bear or find less well-defended areas along the river to get across.
On the Kharkiv front in the northeastern end of the country, Ukrainian forces have driven their opponents to within at least three to four kilometers, or around 1.8 to 2.5 miles, of the Russian border, the U.S. military confirmed today. This is in line with reports over the weekend that Ukraine's units had effectively reached the boundary between the two countries as part of one of their most significant counter-offensives of the conflict to date. Some Russian forces have reportedly withdrawn back into their country's territory as a result of the fighting.
At the same time, U.S. and other officials continue to warn that the Russian military still retains significant combat capacity in and around Ukraine, including the ability to continue conducting stand-off air and missile strikes against targets across the country. Just in the past day or so, approximately six Russian cruise missiles, likely fired from a submarine in the Black Sea, struck the Yavoriv training area in far western Ukraine. However, this strike appears to have only caused minimal damage to facilities there, and no casualties.
Outside of Ukraine, the Swedish government has now announced that it is seeking to join NATO in light of the current crisis, following a decision by neighboring Finland to do the same. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that neither country poses an "immediate threat" now, but that the Russian government could respond in unspecified ways depending on "threats they create for us" after joining the alliance.
WARNING: Some of the updates below contain graphic material.
The War Zone readers can get themselves up to speed first on how Russia's conflict in Ukraine has proceeded already before getting into the latest news below through our previous rolling coverage here.
UPDATED: 5:50 PM EST—
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has now confirmed certain details about the agreement that has allowed 266 Ukrainian personnel to leave Azovstal. Of those individuals, 53 are seriously wounded and being taken to a military hospital in Novoazovsk, while the others are headed to Olenivka, both of which are in Russian-controlled territory.
Zelensky said that Ukrainian security forces and intelligence services, as well as the Red Cross and the United Nations, had been involved in negotiating this deal. What exactly will happen to Ukrainian forces now headed to Russian-occupied territory, as well as those that remain at Azovstal, is still unclear. The Ukrainian president indicated that a possible prisoner swap was on the table to secure the freedom of all of the Azovstal defenders.
In his statement, Zelensky acknowledged that there was ultimately no hope of Ukrainian forces breaking through Russian lines to create a corridor out of Mariupol and that the "most important task is to save the lives of the defenders of Mariupol." He added that "Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive."
POSTED: 5:25 PM EST—
The Russian Ministry of Defense announced a ceasefire had come into effect to allow wounded Ukrainians to leave the Azovstal complex in Mariupol earlier today. The official statement said that this was the product of a deal reached through direct negotiations with Ukrainian forces still operating within the facility.
"A ceasefire regime has been established in the area of the enterprise and a humanitarian corridor has been opened, through which wounded Ukrainian servicemen are being delivered to a medical facility in Novoazovsk, Donetsk People's Republic, to provide them with all the necessary assistance," the statement added. The Donetsk People's Republic, also referred to as the DNR, is one of two Russian-backed breakaway areas in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region. The Kremlin formally recognized the Donetsk People's Republic, as well as the Luhansk People's Republic, or LNR, as independent countries in the lead up to its all-out invasion in February.
At the time of writing there does not appear to be confirmation from the Ukrainian government of any aspect of the Russian military's statement. However, a Ukrainian-language message associated with the Azov Regiment, published on a channel available through the Telegram social media and messaging app, indicated that not only were wounded servicemen leaving Azovstal, but that a broader surrender plan might be in progress. Members of Azov, a controversial far-right organization with members that openly espouse neo-Nazi links who have been fighting under the banner of Ukraine's volunteer Territorial Defense Forces, have been an essential component of the defense of Mariupol broadly since the beginning of the conflict.
"The defenders of Mariupol carried out the order, despite all the difficulties, withdrew the overwhelming forces of the enemy for 82 days and allowed the Ukrainian army to regroup, train more personnel and receive a large number of weapons from partner countries," a machine translation of the statement from Azov reads. "In order to save lives, the entire Mariupol garrison is implementing the approved decision of the Supreme Military Command and hopes for the support of the Ukrainian people."
Ukrainian commanders within the Azovstal complex have been openly talking about their increasingly precarious position thanks to dwindling ammunition and medical supplies, and growing numbers of wounded combatants, for weeks now. The last civilians who had been sheltering in the cavernous tunnel network under the facility left under the protection of the Red Cross and the United Nations last week.
Since then, Russian bombardments have only increased. Just over the weekend, new video footage emerged showing Russia's forces striking the facility with incendiary artillery munitions. It has been claimed that these rounds were loaded with white phosphorus. White phosphorus has gained a particularly notorious reputation and its employment can potentially be considered a war crime depending on the circumstances. However, despite common claims, it does not meet the internationally accepted definition of a chemical weapon under the Chemical Weapons Convention.
In this particular case, it also seems more likely from the visible signature of these weapons that they contained a thermite-based mixture.
What will happen to Ukrainian military personnel and volunteers that are allowed to leave the Azovstal remains to be seen. There is significant speculation now about the potential for show trials and some have noted that the Russian-backed authorities in the DNR have the death penalty available for serious criminal offenses. So far, there has been no independently verifiable reports about what fate might await the defenders of Azovstal after they leave the complex.
Russian forces finally being able to secure all of Mariupol would be a significant victory from both a pragmatic and propaganda perspective. The southern Ukrainian port city has been the last major outcropping of Ukrainian resistance along a highly strategic overland route linking western Russia to the occupied Crimean Peninsula. The Kremlin has also been desperate for tangible victories as its forces struggle to make progress elsewhere in Ukraine, and are even continuing to be pushed back in some places.
A senior U.S. defense official said just today that Russian forces had been "stymied [in] just about every effort" to advance across the Donets (Donetsk) River in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian units have been blowing up bridges, forcing their opponents to attempt to cross using temporary pontoon bridges. Those bridging operations have proven highly vulnerable to Ukrainian artillery. The U.S. military said today that it had assessed that almost an entire Russian battalion was lost in a particularly notable incident last week, as you can read more about here. This has all hampered the Russian military's ability to make any real progress in its current offensive in the Donbas region.
Beyond targeting Russian forces attempting to cross the Donets, Ukrainian artillery has been a key factor in keeping enemy units at bay. A senior U.S. defense official said today that 74 of 90 American-supplied 155mm M777 towed howitzers transferred to the Ukrainian military are now being actively employed in combat.
In Ukraine's northeastern Kharkiv region, the country's forces continue to make steady progress in pushing back Russian units. Ukraine's military has now retaken territory in some areas almost right next to the border with Russia.
Russian forces do continue to hold all of Ukraine at risk, at least to some degree, through stand-off air and missile strikes like the recent ones against the Yavoriv training area in the western Lviv region.
The Russian military still has not achieved air superiority over Ukraine. The video below reportedly shows Russian Su-25 Frogfoot combat jets flying very low over eastern Ukraine and deploying infrared decoy flares used to ward off heat-seeking missiles. Shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, also known as man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS), are largely heat-seeking types and Ukrainian forces have used various types to great effect against Russian fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.
Russia's military has committed the vast majority of the country's active-duty ground forces to operations in Ukraine, as well, yet retains significant combat capacity. At the same time, this highlights the increasingly limited reserves available to Moscow.
There are also indications that Belarusian forces, which have still not deployed directly into Ukraine, are continuing to make worrisome movements along the shared border between those countries. This seems mostly to be intended to force the Ukrainian armed forces to posture themselves against a potential intervention from the north rather than being able to refocus those resources further east, according to an assessment from the U.K. Ministry of Defense.
U.S. and other foreign military aid packages continue to flow to Ukraine. A senior U.S. defense official said today that American-supplied Mi-17 Hip helicopters, originally purchased for the now-defunct Afghan Air Force, have been flying a growing number of missions in the country.
The video in the Tweet below provides an additional look at the truck-mounted launcher for Brimstone missiles that the United Kingdom has supplied to the Ukrainian armed forces. You can read more about this weapon system here.
The picture below shows an Austrailian-supplied Bushmaster mine-protected vehicle with a remote weapon station fitted now in Ukrainian service.
Slovakian Defense Minister Jaroslav Naď confirmed today that Ukrainian troops are receiving training on how to use 155mm Zuzana 2 self-propelled howitzer, and that the government in Kyiv was close to finalizing a deal to purchase examples.
The video below reportedly shows Ukrainian special operations forces "flight testing" a captured Russian Eleron-3 drone.
Sweden's governing Swedish Social Democratic Party announced today that, under its leadership, the country will pursue NATO membership, something that has the backing of much of the rest of the country's political establishment. This follows the Finnish government's announcement last week that it would do the same. Both of these countries have historically neutral policies that have evolved considerably in less than a year due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
In contrast to the Russian government lashing out over Finland's announcement last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin adopted a more cautious approach today. He said that neither Finland nor Sweden presented an immediate threat to Russia, and that there are no issues with them joining NATO. However, he said that Russian authorities could take retaliatory steps depending on how the military posture of either Nordic country changes following their ascension to the alliance.
Sweden has said that it does not want to host formal NATO bases or nuclear weapons, and it's possible that Finland could seek similar terms as part of future negotiations with the alliance. Russian officials regularly criticizes the deployment of additional forces to areas along its periphery, as well as the potential deployment of nuclear weapons to those same regions. Of course, any such provisions would not necessarily preclude ostensibly temporary deployments of NATO forces, including nuclear-capable systems, which could see deployment on a regular, rotating basis.
A senior U.S. defense official said today that there were no indications so far of Russian military forces shifting their posture in response to Nordic NATO plans.
Interestingly, in light of all of this, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland, all NATO members, issued a joint statement today saying that they would "assist Finland and Sweden by all means necessary" in the event that either one becomes the "victim of aggression on their territory before obtaining NATO membership." Any direct involvement by those countries in a conflict could potentially trigger the alliance's collective security provisions even if it takes place in non-NATO Finland or Sweden.
U.S. and other NATO officials said yesterday that they do not expect Turkey to actually hold up Finland's or Sweden's accession to the alliance. However, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said today that his country would not approve either membership plan. Last week, he had said that he did not view either country joining NATO as "positive" over their relationships with Kurdish groups, which Turkey views as terrorist organizations. There are reports that plans for negotiations are already in the works to smooth over Ankara's objections.
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