Ukraine Situation Report: Operation To Break Azovstal Siege Still On The Table
Unfortunately, Ukrainian officials say the risks are still too high to attempt an operation to rescue defenders in Mariupol now.
The Ukrainian military says that it will take any real opportunity that presents itself to cut a path through Russia's brutal siege of the Azovstal steelworks in the southern port city of Mariupol and create an evacuation route for the forces still holding out there. Unfortunately, Ukrainian officials say that such an operation is not viable at present given the strength of Russian defenses in the region, which would require a significant number of units to break through, incurring heavy casualties in the process.
The defenders operating from Azovstal continue to run low on ammunition and medicine, among other supplies, and the Ukrainian armed forces have conceded that their current options for directly resupplying the bastion are limited. Russian air defenses have effectively put a stop to earlier Ukrainian efforts to bring in supplies and then evacuate seriously wounded personnel via helicopter. You can read more about the current situation at Azovstal in our recent exclusive interviews with one of the Ukrainian commanders still running operations there.
Ukraine's Zmiinyi Island, or Snake Island, in the western Black Sea, which is presently occupied by Russian forces, continues to be a notable flashpoint in the broader fighting. Ukrainian fixed-wing aircraft and Turkish-made TB2 armed drones have conducted multiple strikes on targets on the island, as well as vessels at sea nearby, in the past week or so.
There has been speculation that Ukrainian forces may be working up to an attempt to recapture the island or at least push Russian forces to abandon it. The U.K. Ministry of Defence assessed today that Russia's military is likely to remain interested in holding on to the outpost because of its value as a site for staging anti-access/area denial capabilities in this portion of the Black Sea.
Elsewhere in the country, Ukrainian forces continue to not only blunt, but push back against, Russian advances elsewhere in the country. At the same time, Russia's military continues to maintain significant combat capacity in Ukraine, though its operations continue to be hampered by poor leadership, flagging morale, ongoing logistical troubles, and other issues.
The Russian armed forces do retain the ability to prosecute targets across the nation using stand-off air and missile strikes. At the same time, reports are growing that the country's available stocks of air and ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles are running low. The skies over Ukraine still remain contested after more than 10 weeks of fighting, with Ukrainian ground-based air defenses still a significant threat to Russian aircraft.
WARNING: Some of the updates below contain graphic material.
Before getting deeper into the latest news below, The War Zone readers can get up to speed first on how the conflict in Ukraine has been proceeding already through our previous rolling coverage here.
POSTED: 7:20 PM EST—
Deputy Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Oleksiy Hromov, gave an update on the situation in Mariupol as part of a broader press briefing today.
"The connection with the units of the defense forces, which heroically hold their positions, is stable and maintained," he said, according to an official translation of his remarks contained in the Facebook post below. "Today, the deblocking operation will require the involvement of a significant number of troops, as units of the Armed Forces of Ukraine are located 150-200 kilometers from Mariupol. The enemy also created an extensive system of engineering barriers and defensive lines, which will lead to significant losses from our troops."
"The Armed Forces of Ukraine have repeatedly delivered ammunition, communications, and medicine to Mariupol. Such deliveries were possible until the information about the aid was disseminated," he added. "As a result, the enemy took measures to strengthen the air defense system, which made it difficult for us to carry out such actions and led to the loss of personnel and helicopters that evacuated the wounded."
When Ukrainian forces last attempted to fly into Mariupol is unclear. There was significant reporting back on March 31 regarding Russian forces shooting down a Ukrainian Mi-8/Mi-17 Hip-type helicopter that had been flying wounded personnel out of the city at the time, underscoring how risky the situation had already become more than a month ago.
"If there were at least one opportunity to de-blockade Mariupol by military means, it would be used by the country's leadership," Deputy Minister of Defense of Ukraine Anna Maliar said today in separate remarks. "The Armed Forces of Ukraine today are doing everything possible to make such an opportunity appear in the visible future, so that it happens as quickly as possible."
The Ukrainian forces still inside the Azovstal complex, which is also still sheltering civilians caught up in the fighting, have repeatedly vowed to continue fighting despite near-continuous bombardments from Russian aircraft and artillery. Azovstal has a substantial underground tunnel network that has helped shield defenders from attacks.
However, Russian airstrikes and artillery fire still present very real threats to Ukrainian forces there and reportedly caused a worrying, but thankfully only temporary, loss in communication with a field hospital operating there yesterday. Medical personnel at that hospital have been tending to a growing number of wounded, including seriously injured individuals, some of whom have lost limbs in the fighting, but stocks of medicines and other critical supplies are running low.
The U.K. Ministry of Defence released a daily update on the conflict in Ukraine earlier today that includes an assessment that fighting is still ongoing around Zmiinyi Island, or Snake Island, in the western Black Sea. Reports that Ukrainian forces are actively engaged in an effort to retake the island are still largely unconfirmed.
Regardless, "Russia’s current efforts to augment its forces on Zmiinyi Island offer Ukraine more opportunities to engage Russian troops and attrit materiel," according to the British assessment. "If Russia consolidates its position on Zmiinyi Island with strategic air defense and coastal defense cruise missiles, they could dominate the north-western Black Sea."
The new fighting around Snake Island may be in part a product of the Russian Navy's increased wariness to operate in the western Black Sea closer to the Ukrainian coastline following the loss of the cruiser Moskva in April. While the exact circumstances that led up to its sinking remain murky, U.S. and Ukrainian officials have both said that it was struck by shore-launched Neptune anti-ship cruise missiles before it slipped under the waves. U.S.-supplied intelligence reportedly helped Ukrainian forces target the cruiser.
Fighting in various areas of eastern and southern Ukraine is ongoing, with Ukrainian forces counterattacking in or at least contesting control over a number of key areas. A senior U.S. defense official said yesterday that the Russian military's focus does still appear to be primarily on securing areas of Ukraine's eastern Donbas region, but that a renewed offensive there is around two weeks behind schedule in terms of achieving set objectives.
Just today pictures and video emerged showing what appeared to be the aftermath of Ukrainian strikes on Russian forces attempting to cross a section of the Donets River via a pontoon bridge. Dozens of tanks and other armored vehicles were seen damaged or destroyed along the river bank.
Ukrainian forces have claimed to have destroyed a second Russian T-90M Proryv-3, or Breakthrough-3, tank. These are the most advanced operational tanks in Russian service now, as you can read more about here.
The U.S. military is of the view that the Russian government has not achieved any of its strategic goals in Ukraine. This was echoed by a separate assessment yesterday from the U.K. Ministry of Defence that said, among other things, that "Russia's invasion plan is highly likely to have been based on the mistaken assumption that it would encounter limited resistance and would be able to encircle and bypass population centers rapidly."
What impact any of this may have on the Kremlin's overall plans regarding Ukraine remains to be seen. There remains a possibility that Russian President Vladimir Putin could simply declare victory eventually, regardless of the conditions on the ground. Putin has made similar declarations with regards to operations in Syria, which also have not led to Russian forces withdrawing or even halting operations in that country. There are some indications that Russian authorities may be moving to simply annex the Kherson region in southern Ukraine, linking it to the occupied Crimean Peninsula, as well.
The Ukrainian National Police says it has been able to establish operations in four zones around the capital Kyiv following their liberation. At the same time, there are reports that Russian or Russian-aligned covert "sabotage and reconnaissance" elements continue to be found and neutralized in areas otherwise under Ukrainian government control.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a $40-billion Ukraine-related spending bill yesterday. This is more than the $33 billion spending package that the White House had proposed nearly two weeks ago. In addition to more military and other aid for Ukraine, this legislation, which still needs to pass in the Senate, also includes funds to help replenish stocks of weapons that the U.S. military has transferred to Ukraine in recent months. Concerns about the adequacy of the U.S. military's remaining inventory of Javelin anti-tank missiles and Stinger shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, the latter of which are also known as man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS), have become a particularly significant topic of discussion on Capitol Hill.
As of yesterday, the U.S. military had sent 89 of the 90 155mm M777 towed howitzers that it plans to transfer to Ukraine. Tens of thousands of 155mm shells have been delivered, too, and American personnel continue to train their Ukrainian counterparts to use these weapons.
The German government says that it has started training Ukrainian personnel to operate 155mm PzH 2000 self-propelled howitzers. This comes as authorities in Germany work to transfer seven of these artillery pieces to the Ukrainian armed forces.
Elon Musk, the founder, CEO, and Chief Engineer of SpaceX, has said the company's Starlink satellite internet service has so far resisted Russia's cyber attacks and electronic warfare jamming, but that those threats are increasing. Musk has claimed in the past, without elaborating in detail, that Starlink has resisted such attacks since the service first began to be used in Ukraine shortly after Russian forces launched their all-out invasion of Ukraine in Febraury. His assertion that a relatively simple software update helped defeat some initial attacks drew the attention of U.S. military officials.
Beyond Ukraine, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told members of Congress today that he did not believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin is actively seeking a broader conflict with NATO. He also said that the Russian military's reported use of conventionally-armed hypersonic weapons in the course of the conflict in Ukraine is not an indication in any way of its preparedness or willingness to employ nuclear weapons. A senior U.S. defense official said yesterday that the U.S. military believes that Russia has employed between 10 and 12 unspecified hypersonic weapons, which could include Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missiles, against targets in Ukraine since the conflict began.
Entirely unsubstantiated reports had spread across social media earlier today that Russian forces had conducted a chemical weapons attack. Experts and observers quickly noted that pictures of the purported strike did not align with the employment of chemical weapons. Reports subsequently emerged that a stockpile of volatile ammonium nitrate fertilizer had been struck, which would fit with the images from the incident.
The video below reportedly shows Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces volunteers firing a truck-mounted 57mm S-60 anti-aircraft cannon. This weapon is a dated design, but could still be useful in combat against Russian forces, especially when used against ground targets. The clip also interestingly shows that the gun is firing Slovakian-made ammunition that was produced relatively recently and could well have been part of a military aid package sent to the country after the conflict started.
Unconfirmed claims are circulating online that at least some of the Russian combat aircraft flying over Ukraine are now being flown by members of private military companies. The ostensibly private company Wagner, which has strong ties to Russian intelligence services, is operating in Ukraine and has been said to have flown Russian-supplied jets in Libya.
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