Ukraine Situation Report: Russia Training Belarus Pilots To Fly Jets With ‘Special Warheads’
Lukashenko thanked Putin for handing over nuclear-capable Iskander short-range ballistic missiles and S-400 air defense systems.
During his first visit to Belarus in more than three years, Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed with his counterpart, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, on a wide range of military and economic issues, including training Belarusian pilots to fly combat jets equipped with “special warheads,” according to the official Belarusian BelTa new agency. Lukashenko also thanked Putin for providing nuclear-capable Iskander short-range ballistic missiles and an S-400 air defense complex to Belarus, Russia’s client state that relies heavily on Moscow for security and economic support.
Meeting amid questionable concerns from Kyiv that Russia could launch a new offensive through Belarus, as it did during the opening days of the all-out invasion of Ukraine, the two leaders agreed Russia will train Belarusian Air Force crews to operate aircraft “which have already been refitted to carry and possibly use air-launched ammunition with special warheads,” Putin told reporters Monday after his meeting with Lukashenko in Minsk, according to BelTa, in an apparent nod to nuclear weapons.
That training is already underway, Lukashenko said, according to BelTa.
Russia's decision to train Belarusian pilots on aircraft with "special warheads" follows up statements Putin made in June floating the possibility of upgrading Belarusian Air Force Su-25 Frogfoots to carry nuclear weapons. You can read more about that in our coverage here.
Lukashenko was thankful for the Iskander and S-400 systems Putin provided.
"I thank you, Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] for our finding mutual understanding and support on all the matters and for our making the necessary decisions. I offer special thanks ... from me and from the military for fulfilling your promise," he said, according to BelTa. "Today we've commissioned an S-400 [air defense missile] complex that you have handed over to Belarus. And most importantly the Iskander complex, which you've also handed over to us after promising it half a year ago.”
The two leaders on Monday also discussed the formation of a “common defensive space and provision of security, including cooperation within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO),” BelTa reported. Belarus will preside over the organization next year.
“Putin remarked that joint military plans are being made within the framework of the Union State of Belarus and Russia and the regional military task force is operational,” BelTa suggested. “At present Belarusian and Russian Army units are going through combat shakedown training in Belarus' territory. A joint air defense system has been created and functions. According to the president, the sides agreed to continue jointly taking all the necessary measures to ensure proper security, agreed to pay priority attention to training the troops, to improving their combat readiness, agreed to continue the practice of regular joint military exercises and mutual shipments of weapons.”
Hours before the meeting, Belarusian State Secretary of the Security Council Alexander Volfovich ordered snap readiness inspections of the military and the scheduling of combat training, according to the Belarusian Defense Ministry’s (MOD) Telegram channel. Last week, Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhny, the head of Ukraine’s military, warned of a possible new Russian offensive from Belarus. While U.S. officials have pushed back on that notion for several reasons – notably that nearly 10 months of all-out war on Ukraine has likely drained the requisite troops, equipment and ammunition – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday said he discussed such a possibility with his staff.
“Protection of the border with both Russia and Belarus is also a constant priority,” Zelensky said Sunday on his Telegram channel. “We are preparing for all possible defense scenarios. Whoever inclines Minsk to whatever, it will not help them just as any other sick idea in this war against Ukraine and Ukrainians.”
Throughout the war, Russia has launched piloted aircraft and drone attacks against Ukrainian cities from Belarus.
But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Monday downplayed concerns that Putin and Lukashenko were plotting a new military offensive from Belarus.
Peskov advised Zaluzhny to "rest” after his statements that Moscow and Minsk were preparing a joint operation, according to the Telegram channel of the official Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.
The U.S. State Department on Monday said it will pay close attention to any additional support Lukashenko provides Putin and will respond "appropriately" if he does, Bloomberg reported.
Kyiv has also expressed concerns that Russia plans on annexing Belarus, something Putin on Monday vehemently denied.
“It is not about absorbing anyone,” he said, according to BelTa. "It is about aligning the economic policies. This is the way it is done in many other integration associations. Everything else is nonsense. These are just the attempts of the ill-wishers to slow down our integration. They are doing it only to make sure efficient competitors, that might be dangerous for them, do not emerge in the international market. That's all."
Lukashenko had previously denied that contention as well.
“I see that the situation is now escalating,” Lukashenko said Friday, according to the official National Press Center of Belarus. "I would like to emphasize this feature once again: no one, except us, governs Belarus. These are our functions under the Constitution, including mine. We are implementing these functions."
Before we head into the latest coverage from Ukraine, The War Zone readers can get caught up on our previous rolling coverage here.
There has been little real change on the battlefield over the past 48 hours, with Russian forces, led by the Wagner mercenary group, continuing to press attacks against Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut in the Donetsk Oblast. Meanwhile, fighting continues in Luhansk Oblast along the P-66 highway running from Svatove to Kreminna as there are indications that Russian forces may be making further retreats in Kherson Oblast.
Here are some key takeaways from the latest Institute for the Study of War assessment.
- Ukrainian and Russian sources reported that positional fighting continued along the Svatove-Kreminna line.
- Ukrainian and Russian sources reported ongoing fighting in the outskirts of Bakhmut and to the northeast and south of the city. The Russian Ministry of Defense claimed that Russian forces captured Yakovlivka, Donetsk Oblast, located to the northeast of Soledar.
- Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces dislodged Russian forces from long-held positions near Bakhmut.
- A Ukrainian official stated that Russian forces are redeploying units from the east (left) bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast and that it is too early to tell whether Russian forces are withdrawing. Russian and Ukrainian forces continued routine artillery and rocket strikes across the Dnipro River.
- The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces struck two Russian force concentrations and two ammunition depots in Zaporizhia Oblast on Dec. 16, injuring 150 personnel and destroying 10 pieces of equipment. Ukrainian Melitopol Mayor Ivan Fedorov stated that Russian forces are placing dragon’s teeth anti-tank defenses in Melitopol.
- Russian forces and occupation authorities continue to struggle to address a severe shortage of medical personnel and supplies.
Putin's trip to meet his close ally Lukashenko came hours after Russia launched a new wave of drone strikes against Ukraine, hitting the capital's power infrastructure, among other targets.
Russia launched 35 Shahed-136 and Shahed-131 drones from the eastern shore of the Sea of Azov, according to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense (MOD), which claimed that 30 of those were destroyed by air defense systems, fighter aircraft and mobile fire groups.
Some of those mobile fire groups, which you can read all about here, are apparently using mounted twin Maxim PM1910 machine guns against drones. They first came into service during trench warfare ... of World War I - long before drones.
Despite Ukrainian claims of success against the drones, something it makes often, some still managed to disrupt the energy supply.
"After the morning attacks of the aggressor on the capital and the damage to infrastructure facilities, utility workers have already managed to restore the operation of most boiler houses," Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said on his Telegram channel Monday. "About 3% of consumers remain without heating. The capital's water supply system is working normally."
The Ukrainian "Ukrenergo" energy company announced that "the situation in the energy sector is difficult, so emergency and emergency shutdowns are in effect," Klitschko said.
Kyiv residents, however, are making do, even using pedal power to keep the city's Christmas lights lit.
The latest Russian drone attack was apparently enabled by a new tranche of drones from Iran.
"The Russian Federation has renewed strikes on Ukraine with Iranian Shahed kamikaze drones thanks to a new batch, but uses them more sparingly," Andrii Yusov, a spokesman for Ukraine's Defense Intelligence directorate (GUR), said Sunday, according to the GUR Telegram channel.
"Yes, this is a new batch, but compared to the initial mass use of Shaheds, it is obviously smaller. We are not commenting on the number now, but we can see that, for example, during mass terrorist missile attacks, 'Shaheds' were not used. All other available means, all missile weapons were used."
Meanwhile, Ukraine has developed drones of its own. The Ukrainian MOD recently announced that eight homegrown drones were introduced into the military, including those by AeroDrone, a maker of agricultural drones before the all-out war.
Ukrainian attack drones reportedly hit the Kinburn Spit, a narrow piece of land jutting into the Black Sea.
A short while after the initial video was posted, @CovertShores geolocated the strike, confirming it was indeed on the Kinburn Spit, which Ukrainian forces are trying to wrest from Russia.
The Russian Rybar Telegram channel continues to bemoan Moscow's efforts to develop a capable fleet of domestic attack drones.
The Lancet drone in particular, outfitted with warheads ranging from under 7 to about 11 pounds, is often inadequate for the task, Rybar said Monday in a post comparing it against Ukrainian drones.
"Motorized riflemen of the Kantemirovskaya division, which operate in the Svatove direction, shot down a drone. The fighters nicknamed this drone 'Baba Yaga,'" Rybar posted. "An agricultural UAV makes a characteristic noise and carries up to 6 RPG rounds on board. The enemy adapted a reset for the PG-7 to the copter and quite effectively uses the complex to strike at our manpower and equipment."
"In the meantime, our industry is 'giving birth' in the throes of shock UAVs. Lancet is certainly good, but not enough. Very little. And there are few explosives in the Lancet and, in principle, there are few systems. Lancet is certainly good, but not enough," Rybar posted. "Very little. And there are few explosives in the lancet and, in principle, there are few systems."
Still, Russian drones do manage to hit Ukrainian targets, in this case a Russian Forpost-RU drone apparently destroying a Ukrainian T-64BV tank.
Despite repeated Russian attacks, Ukraine continues to maintain that Moscow is running out of missiles. They only have enough missiles for another three or four more mass attacks before running out, National Security and Defense Council Secretary Oleksii Danilov said, according to the Kyiv Independent. It is a claim Ukraine has made several times before, often, it turned out, ahead of another wave of Russian missile attacks. It remains to be seen whether this is actually the case.
The shortage of howitzer ammunition, meanwhile, definitely continues to plague both sides.
At the second in-person meeting of the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) with his Nordic, Baltic and Dutch counterparts, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called on the leaders of the 10 member nations "to sustain or exceed 2022 levels of support for Ukraine in 2023 through ongoing lethal aid, economic resilience and political backing," according to the U.K. government website. That message came as the U.K. announced Monday it will supply hundreds of thousands of rounds of artillery ammunition next year, under a $300 million contract "that will ensure a constant flow of critical artillery ammunition to Ukraine throughout 2023."
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked the JEF members for their support.
One of the ways Ukraine has tried to address this is by making its own munitions. The first batch of experimental Ukrainian-made 122mm shells has arrived on the front, The Voice of America reported.
"They weren't bad at all," one Ukrainian artillery soldier said.
That shortage has apparently not stopped the latest Ukrainian trend - marriage proposal via artillery shell, which probably puts the most pyrotechnically splendid baby gender reveals to shame.
The first video of the Ukrainians using a new type of mortar has apparently emerged on social media, the Ukraine Weapons Tracker OSINT group reports. The new mortar round is an M971 120mm cluster weapon, which houses 24 M87 dual-purpose AT/AP submunitions in the standard version. It was first developed by Israel.
Ukraine continues to make use of captured weaponry, like these captured Russian T-90M and T-80U tanks now being put to use near Bakhmut. The T-90M is Russia's most advanced tank participating in the war effort.
Improvised mobile systems are also a trademark of Ukraine's war effort, like this make-shift reconnaissance station built into the back of a Volga pickup.
And Ukrainian troops are still risking their lives in helicopters, like this crew of a Ukrainian Mi-8 Hip trying to come to the aid of a stricken Hip, which you can see here being shot down.
Sometimes, camouflage doesn't help, as this Russian 2S6m Tunguska-M short-range air defense gun/missile system found out. It was apparently taken out of action by the Ukrainian army.
Remember the battle for Snake Island, which Russia ended up evacuating on June 30?
Well here's a new look at some of the equipment Russia left behind when it abandoned that rock.
Baby it's cold outside, but Ukrainian forces are staying warm, thanks to portable saunas brought in from Estonia.
Although there is a war on, Ukraine isn't putting a chill on the holiday spirit.
Sunday night, Ukrainian Jews celebrated Chanukah with the lighting of a giant menorah in Kyiv.
And in Sophia Square in Kyiv, the Christmas tree was lit up.
"Traditionally, on December 19, on St. Nicholas Day, we lit the lights on the country's main Christmas tree on Sofia Square," Klitschko wrote on his Telegram channel. "This year there was a lot of discussion about whether to put up a Christmas tree. Given the fact that we live in conditions of martial law, shelling and power cuts. But I think we made the right decision. There should be a Christmas tree! Our children should have a holiday! Despite all the efforts of Russian barbarians to deprive Ukrainians of the joy of Christmas and New Year."
This year, of course, the format of the celebrations is different, he said. "And the Christmas tree is not as big and elegant as usual. 12 meters instead of 31, as last year. And we called it the 'Christmas tree of indomitability.'"
That's it for now.
We will update this story if there is anything major to add until our next new update is posted.
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