Ukraine Situation Report: France Sends Howitzers, Polish Tanks Could Follow
More weaponry is pouring into Ukraine as Russia’s eastern offensive picks up steam.
French authorities are in the process of transferring an unspecified number of 155mm CAESAR wheeled self-propelled howitzers to Ukraine, according to an interview with French President Emmanuel Macron that was published today. Separately, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson says his government is looking to help facilitate a transfer of Polish T-72 tanks to the Ukrainian military.
These are the latest in a string of recent announcements regarding the delivery or planned delivery of artillery pieces and armored vehicles, to Ukraine amid a broader surge in military aid for the country. Yesterday, news broke that the Slovenian government would be sending a number of M-84 tanks, which are derivatives of the Soviet T-72M that were made in the former Yugoslavia, while Dutch authorities were working on a transfer of German-made PzH 2000 155mm track self-propelled howitzers. The German government is set to help facilitate both of these deliveries.
Other kinds of military assistance continue to pour into Ukraine from various countries. Yesterday, the United States announced a new aid package for Ukraine, worth $800 million, bringing the value of American commitments announced just in the past two weeks to $1.6 billion. The new batch of American aid includes 72 towed 155mm howitzers and an equal number of vehicles to pull them along, 144,000 rounds of 155mm ammunition, and various "field equipment and spare parts."
The aid package also includes "over 121" Phoenix Ghost unmanned aerial systems, a previous unknown loitering munition, or 'suicide drone,' developed specifically for Ukraine under a contract with the U.S. Air Force. Details about this system, which the Pentagon said is similar, at least broadly, to variants of the AeroVironment Switchblade that Ukraine has received already, are limited, but you can find out more about what we do know so far here.
The Russian military's new offensive in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region has directly contributed to a significant increase in the size and scope of foreign military assistance for Ukraine in recent weeks. By every indication, Russian units in Ukraine are under immense pressure to produce results that can at least be presented as victories between now and the official anniversary of the Soviet Union's defeat of Nazi Germany on May 9, which is typically marked by large military parades in Moscow and other cities. Russian President Vladimir Putin had declared the southern Ukrainian port city of Mariupol to have been "liberated" yesterday, despite a pocket of resistance continuing to hold out in a large industrial area.
The Kremlin's overall goals in Ukraine still extend beyond the Donbas, according to remarks today from Maj. Gen. Rustam Minnekaev, the Deputy Commander of Russia's Central Military District. Minnekaev highlighted how the Russian government extending its control of areas of southern Ukraine would present "another way out to Transnistria," a breakaway region of neighboring Moldova to the west.
WARNING: Some of the updates below contain graphic material.
Before diving into the latest news below, The War Zone readers can get up to speed first on how Russia's war in Ukraine has been proceeding recently with our previous rolling coverage here.
POSTED: 5:10 PM EST—
The Ouest-France newspaper in France was the first to report the transfer of the CAESAR self-propelled howitzers to Ukraine. It has since been reported that the Ukrainian military could receive 12 CAESARs in total and that 40 Ukrainian personnel are set to begin training on the system in France.
French President Macron also told Ouest-France that a shipment of Milan anti-tank guided missiles was being sent, as well. Video footage had already emerged reportedly showing Milans in use in Ukraine earlier this month.
Separately, speaking at a press conference in India, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was actively looking into conducting a “backfilling” effort of some kind to bolster Poland's defensive capacity so that it could transfer some of its T-72 tanks to Ukraine. It's not immediately clear whether the Polish government is considering transferring older T-72M variants that it produced under license from the Soviet Union during the Cold War or modernized PT-91 Twardy derivatives. The British backfilling plan reportedly involves Challenger 2 tanks going to Poland, though it's unclear if they would be operated by British or Polish crews. The Polish Army already has a fleet of more modern German-built Leopard 2 tanks and is in the process of acquiring U.S.-made M1A2 Abrams tanks.
The announcement regarding the Polish tanks comes a day after German authorities announced a planned three-way transfer that would see the Slovenian military send an unspecified number of M-84 tanks to Ukraine and receive Marder tracked infantry fighting vehicles and Fuchs wheeled armored personnel carriers from Germany in exchange. German media reports indicated that the Slovenian government had sought more modern German designs, including Leopard 2s, Puma tracked infantry fighting vehicles, and Boxer wheeled armored vehicles as part of the deal.
Deliveries of T-72s from various European countries have already allowed Ukrainian forces to put more tanks on the battlefield than their Russian counterparts, a senior U.S. defense official said yesterday. What countries specifically have provided these tanks is unclear, but the Czech Republic is understood to have sent at least one batch.
The German government is set to help train Ukrainian crews to operate PzH 2000 self-propelled howitzers that the Netherlands is sending, as well as supply 155mm ammunition for them.
For authorities in Germany, facilitating these transfers appears to be a response to international pressure and criticism over the country's material support for the Ukrainian military. The German government has been dragging its feet when it comes to delivering more robust military assistance directly, but officials in the country say they have also simply chosen not to publicly disclose what has been sent.
Much of this is ostensibly due to various legal hurdles and general foreign policy considerations, but also appears to be all but certainly linked to Germany's continued heavy reliance on natural gas from Russia for its energy needs. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said earlier this week that the country would stop importing oil from Russia by the end of the year, but made no such commitment regarding natural gas. The Russian government has very publicly sought to pressure the European Union over growing sanctions and other support for Ukraine with various threats regarding the flow of natural gas and oil to Western Europe.
As has already been made clear, military aid from countries across Europe, as well as the United States and other nations around the world, is steadily flowing into Ukraine despite Russian government threats to retaliate economically and politically. The aid packages have only continued to include heavier and more advanced weapons, such as tanks, artillery, and unmanned systems, like the still-mysterious Phoenix Ghost loitering munitions that the U.S. government is now preparing to deliver. U.S. drone maker AeroVironment announced earlier this week that it was donating more than 100 Quantix Recon small unmanned aircraft, too.
For many nations, the decision to expand not only the size of their military aid deliveries to Ukraine, but also their scope, was first driven by clear indications that the Russian military was laying the groundwork for reinvigorated operations in the country's eastern Donbas region. That new offensive began on the night of April 18-19. The War Zone has already explored in detail how tanks and other armor vehicles and artillery are likely to be particularly important factors on both sides in this new phase of the conflict.
The new offensive in the Donbas follows an announcement weeks ago that Russian forces would refocus their efforts on securing this part of Ukraine. Russia's military setting of this limited objective appears to be driven in no small part by a desire to produce operational successes of some kind ahead of the May 9 Victory Day celebrations.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's announcement yesterday that the southern Ukrainian port city of Mariupol had been "liberated" would seem to be a prime example of this push. Despite Putin's declaration, Ukrainian forces are still holding out and remain capable of inflicting casualties on Russian units while operating from an area immediately surrounding Azovstal iron and steel works in the center of the city.
The Russian President told Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu yesterday to drop any plans to assault the industrial area and instead encircle it so tightly that a "fly cannot pass" in or out. In addition to Ukrainian forces, there are estimated to be 1,000 civilians sheltering in the Azovstal facility.
Mariupol has been surrounded and subjected to a brutal siege, which has led to the death of thousands of civilians according to local authorities, since almost the very beginning of Russia's all-out invasion of Ukraine in February. It remains a key objective for the Russian military. Fully capturing it would help secure a highly strategic overland route between Western Russia and the occupied Crimean Peninsula.
For weeks, there have been building fears that a renewed Donbas offensive could be part of a larger effort to bifurcate Ukraine to some degree. Deputy Commander of Russia's Central Military District Maj. Gen. Rustam Minnekaev has reignited those concerns today with his comments about objectives across southern Ukraine.
There is already some debate among experts and observers about whether or not Minnekaev's remarks reflect near-term operational goals or are more aspirational. Regardless, his comments do seem to make clear that the Russian government is interested at least on some level in the possibility of cutting Ukraine off from its Black Sea coastline entirely. This is somewhat reinforced by a map that was visible in an official video clip of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko meeting with his country's Security Council back in March. The map appears to show Russian operational planning regarding Ukraine and showed what appeared to be a planned or proposed line of advance stretching from an area along Ukraine's Black Sea coast near the port city of Odesa all the way to Transnistria.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said yesterday that there we evidence that Russian forces were carrying out a "census" in the country's southern Kherson and Kaporizhzhia regions. He indicated that this could actually be in service of staging some kind of "independence referendum" that would provide a pretext for splitting these areas off from the rest of the country, similar to what the Russian government did in Crimea before annexing it outright
There are still questions about how long it might take for the Russian military to effectively rectify a host of major deficiencies that the fighting in Ukraine has exposed, including poor leadership, low, morale, and logistics issues, as well as significant combat losses. The U.K. Ministry of Defense assessed today that an announcement earlier in the week by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu that "new methods of warfare" would be implemented in Ukraine was "a tacit admission that Russian progress is not going as intended."
Earlier this week, Foreign Policy's Jack Detsch posted a pair of Tweets that collected U.S. government assessments about declining Russian combat capacity in Ukraine, as well as total missile launches, since the conflict began on February 24. The U.S. military has also said that the Russian military appears to be employing significant numbers of domestic mercenaries and foreign recruits via the ostensibly private military company Wagner, which has strong ties to Russia's intelligence agencies, to make up for manpower shortfalls.
The Russian Ministry of Defense has finally provided figures regarding casualties resulting from the events that led up to the sinking of the Russian Navy's Project 1164 Slava class cruiser Moskva last week. Per the official tally, one individual died and 27 individuals are missing, while 396 were able to escape the Black Sea Fleet's flagship before it slipped below the waves. However, previous media reports have indicated there was more than one fatality and dozens of injuries. The Russian Defense Ministry does not appear to have addressed the matter of injured sailors at all so far. Beyond that, these numbers only add up to 424 total personnel, which is significantly lower than the ship's stated typical crew size.
The Tweet below reportedly shows a small unmanned being used by members of the Ukrainian military's Aerorozvidka drone unit to drop improvised munitions on Russian forces. The picture in the Tweet below that reportedly shows a Russian sniper from the country's airborne forces, commonly referred to collectively by the acronym VDV, with a Chinese-made DJI Mavic quadcopter-type drone in the foreground. Taken together, these posts underscore that small unmanned systems have been providing valuable capabilities on both sides of the conflict.
The pictures below reportedly show portions of a Russian Kh-101 air-launched cruise missile that Ukrainian forces recovered, highlighting the dated electronic components still being used to make these weapons.
The Tweet below shows a picture of a truck with improvised add-on armor, as well as a weapon of some kind, possibly a ZU-23 23mm anti-aircraft cannon, mounted on top, reportedly in use in Ukraine. This is one of a number of examples of unarmored Russian vehicles being up-armored in the course of the current conflict.
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said today that the British Embassy in Kyiv is set to reopen next week.
Earlier this week, the Russian Foreign Ministry imposed sanctions on a number of Americans, including Vice President Kamal Harris, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. This was in retaliation for U.S. government sanctions on Russian government officials and oligarchs.
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