Ukraine Situation Report: Zelensky Headed To Washington, Will Get Patriot Missiles

News of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s planned visit to D.C. came hours after he visited his troops in war-torn Bakhmut.

byHoward Altman|
Zelensky in Bakhmut
Via Zelensky Telegram channel

Hours after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a bold and dangerous unannounced visit to the battle-scarred frontline town of Bakhmut, scene of some of the war's toughest fighting, news began circulating that he would make another potentially very notable trip - a visit to Washington D.C. to meet with President Joe Biden and Congress, according to the White House.

Once in Washington, Zelensky will receive a Biden administration pledge for a new round of security assistance — including the provision of a Patriot air defense battery - hold a press conference and then head to Capitol Hill for a joint address to Congress, a senior administration official told reporters, including from The War Zone, Tuesday night. The trip will be Zelensky's first visit outside Ukraine since Russia launched its all-out invasion on Feb. 24. It will be a historic event considering the close ties that have grown between Ukraine and the U.S. and the immense backing in the form of arms, diplomatic maneuvering, and economic assistance the U.S. has provided Kyiv in its fight against Russia's invasion.

Earlier in the day Tuesday, standing inside what appeared to be a factory and outfitted in his prototypical olive drab garb, this time an army hooded winter jacket, Zelensky was depicted in an official video shaking hands with soldiers, handing out medals and giving a speech.

His visit came as Russian forces are making what the Pentagon on Tuesday told The War Zone were “very incremental gains” on the industrial city in Donetsk that has seen months of heavy attacks by Russia, reinforcements of a staunch defense by Ukraine and tremendous loss of personnel and equipment on both sides. The Liveuamap open-source intelligence site said it geolocated Zelensky to a little more than a mile away from Russian positions. The War Zone could not independently verify that.

Zelensky “made a working trip to the Donetsk region, where he met with Ukrainian soldiers defending the city of Bakhmut,” presidential spokesman Sergii Nykyforov said Tuesday on his Facebook page. “The President visited the front positions of one of the mechanized brigades, whose personnel confronts the enemy on the approaches to the city.”

Zelensky “heard the commander's report on the operational situation, material and technical support and suggestions for further action,” said Nykyforov, adding that while in the combat area, “Zelensky thanked the Ukrainian soldiers for the courage, resilience and strength they demonstrate by repelling enemy attacks.”

After handing out medals, Zelensky and the troops held a moment of silence “in memory of the heroes who remained forever on the battlefield.”

He also took an open-air stroll through a part of the war-torn city, which is remarkable considering the extreme threat from drones and artillery.

The visit to Bakhmut by Zelensky and his entourage, which included Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar, came in stark contrast to what was initially portrayed as a frontline battlefield observation by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on Sunday.

While the Russian Defense Ministry published video it claimed was Shoigu flying in a helicopter over trenches on the front, open source intelligence monitoring groups later claimed they determined through geolocation that Shoigu instead was flying over Crimea, some 50 miles away from the nearest Ukrainian positions.

Not to be outdone, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin visited the front lines days before Zelensky.

"Peskov confirmed Putin's visit to the special military operation zone on December 16," according to the Telegram channel of the official Russian news agency TASS. "On this day, the President of the Russian Federation worked in the joint headquarters of the troops."

Other than saying Putin spent the day working at the joint headquarters of the Northeast Military District, Peskov offered no other details about the tip and apparently no proof that it even took place.

Yevgeny Prighozhin, head of the Wagner mercenary group, also posted videos on his Telegram channel today intimating he was in Bakhmut and wanted to meet Zelensky there. It is unclear, however, exactly where or when the video was taken.

As the leader of his nation struggling against a world power, Zelensky has continued to grab and use the bright international spotlight to advocate for Ukraine, constantly seeking more weapons, economic support, and additional international actions against Russia.

The Pentagon's top spokesman on Tuesday said the Ukrainian president's leadership style has been instrumental to his nation's survival.

“Broadly speaking, we continue to see his leadership be a key aspect to Ukraine's success in their fight, but I'll let him talk to his own rationale for where he goes and why,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon’s top spokesman, told The War Zone during a Tuesday afternoon press conference. 

The visit garnered jubilant reactions among Ukrainians and muted response from Moscow. Clearly intended to boost his nation's morale during difficult times, Zelensky met his goal.

As for what's taking place on the battlefield, Ryder told The War Zone that "we continue to see intense fighting in the region of Bakhmut, with Russian forces making very incremental gains, and we're talking feet. The fighting has been intense for a while there."

Prigozhin's Wagner mercenary group has led much of the heaviest fighting there for Russia and has reportedly been taking heavy casualties, like this group apparently being attacked by a Ukrainian drone.

Before we head into the latest coverage from Ukraine, The War Zone readers can get caught up on our previous rolling coverage here.

Update 1 AM EST Dec. 21:

In conjunction with Zelensky’s visit, President Biden will announce “a significant new package” of nearly $2 billion in security assistance for Ukraine, including a Patriot surface-to-air missile battery, a senior administration official told reporters, including from The War Zone Tuesday evening. 

The Patriot battery “will be a critical asset to defend the Ukrainian people against Russian barbaric attacks on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We will train Ukrainian forces on how to operate the Patriot missile battery in a third country. This will take some time, but Ukrainian troops will take that training back to their country to operate this better.”

You can read more about the Patriot and its potential role in Ukraine in our coverage here.

During this visit, “we will also have the opportunity along with Congress to work to pass a significant package and additional funding for Ukraine for 2023. And we anticipate a bipartisan package with more than $40 billion in funding for Ukraine. President Biden will continue to rally the world as we work to maintain the remarkable unity we've demonstrated over 2022.”

Biden will not pressure Zelensky into negotiating a peace deal with Russia, the official said.

As to any danger pertaining to Zelensky leaving Ukraine, the official said it was ultimately his decision to make.

“We have the opportunity to consult closely with President Zelensky on the security parameters and him being able to depart the country, come to the United States for a brief period and then return. Of course, it ultimately was his decision to make. He concluded that those security parameters were met, what he needed, we agreed with that and so, we are executing accordingly.”

The official, who declined to offer specific details on how and when Zelensky will arrive, noted that his visit to Bakhmut earlier in the day proves he is not averse to taking risks for his people.

“He has previously traveled to other areas right out there on the front line, and he makes his own determinations about that travel based on what he believes is best to deliver for his people,” the official said. “He feels this is something that is going to aid the fight for Ukraine.”

The Latest

A day after Putin visited Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to shore up relations and provide the leader of his client state with military training and arms - including nuclear-capable Iskander short-range ballistic missiles and an S-400 air defense complex - the Pentagon said there is no indication of a looming invasion of Ukraine from the north.

"I don't want to get into intelligence," Ryder told reporters Tuesday. "But at this time, we don't have any information that would suggest that there is any type of imminent or pending cross-border activities from Belarus into Ukraine. But certainly, we'll continue to keep a close eye on that."

Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon's top spokesman, told reporters Tuesday the U.S. military sees no indication of an imminent threat of another attack on Ukraine from Belarus. (Pentagon screencap).

Though Ukraine Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhny told The Economist last week his forces were bracing for a future offensive from Russia, a State Department official on Tuesday told reporters that the U.S. is picking up mixed signals on Putin's intentions.

"Certainly, there are some (within Russia) who I think would want to pursue (new) offensives in Ukraine. There are others who have real questions about the capacity for Russia to actually do that," the State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told reporters in Washington.

The official repeated assertions that Russia is facing ongoing ammunition shortages and continued unit cohesion problems.

"There are all sorts of things that the Russians are dealing with in terms of having the necessary equipment, having the necessary ammunition that put some constraints on what they may want to do," the official said.

As has been the case for several weeks, the situation elsewhere on the battlefield remains largely static, with little real territory changing hands. In addition to intense fighting in Donetsk, the two sides continue to trade blows in Luhansk along the P-66 Highway area running from Svatove to Kreminna.

Here are some key takeaways from the latest Institute for the Study of War assessment:

  • Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko likely deflected Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to coerce Belarus into Russian-Belarusian integration concessions on Dec. 19.
  • Igor Girkin, a former Russian militant commander and prominent critical voice in the Russian milblogger information space, wrote a harsh critique of the Russian military’s overall performance in the war.
  • The Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) reportedly clashed with other Russian occupation authorities regarding basic administration procedures, suggesting tensions between the various occupation administrations in Ukraine.
  • The Wagner Group has likely built its offensive model around tactical brutality in order to accommodate for and take advantage of its base of poorly trained and recently recruited convicts.
  • Russian forces continued limited counterattacks along the Svatove-Kreminna line as Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces targeted Russian rear positions in Luhansk Oblast.
  • Russian forces reportedly lost positions south of Bakhmut on Dec. 18 and continued ground attacks near Bakhmut and Donetsk City.
  • Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces are pulling back some elements from areas along the east (left) bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast.
  • Wagner Group financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin continued efforts to establish the Wagner Group as a legitimate parastatal organization by petitioning notoriously nationalist elements in the Kremlin.
  • Russian occupation authorities continued to restrict movement within occupied territories and employ societal intimidation tactics.

British Defense Minister Ben Wallace on Tuesday told Parliament that Russia would send Iran advanced military equipment in return for providing it with hundreds of one-way attack drones.

“In return for having supplied more than 300 kamikaze drones, Russia now intends to provide Iran with advanced military components, undermining both Middle East and international security,” he told members of Parliament, according to The Guardian.

"No other evidence was cited in support of Wallace’s statement, which is likely to be based on British intelligence, but it is consistent with warnings made by the US nearly two weeks ago, when it said it was concerned a deal would go ahead," the newspaper reported.

After Wallace spoke, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, told MPs that while Russia remained the UK’s “No 1 foreign policy challenge” he was “increasingly concerned about Iran’s behavior,” an echo of Wallace’s comments.

Wallace's comments are the latest assertion of how Russia is trading arms to Iran for drones, something we previously covered in our story about the potential deal to send Iran Russian-made Su-35 Flanker-E fighters, something we covered here.

Ukraine, meanwhile, is apparently deploying a new use of its drones, flying in groups at different levels at night, with only one of them lit. According to a review of Russian Telegram channels by drone expert Samuel Bendett, that tactic provokes Russian air defenses to fire, allowing the unlit drones to record data about the location and types of weapons.

While Ukraine's desire for more and better air defense systems is well-known, it appears Russia too is struggling to protect the skies over its troops. Denis Pushilin, acting head of the pro-Russian so-called Donetsk People's Republic, has asked Putin for more air defenses.

As Russia continues to attack Ukraine's power grid, causing widespread electricity and water outages for millions of people entering the most frigid time of the year, the U.S. military is delivering tens of millions of dollars of equipment to help keep the energy flowing.

"The administration has been working — in partnership with the National Labs, industry, utilities, and the Ukrainian government — to locate available equipment in the U.S. that can be delivered to Ukraine for emergency support," the Pentagon said, citing Department of Energy officials. 

If you ever wanted to see what it's like for a low-flying Ukrainian helicopter crew hugging the ground in an apparent on-the-fly attempt to rescue the crew of a downed helicopter, check out this video of an Mi-8 Hip carrying out such a mission in Donetsk.

Low-level flying remains a staple of operations for fixed-wing pilots of both sides as well as they seek to not provide a target for enemy air defense systems. A couple of Ukrainian fighter pilots are seen here demonstrating such skills, much to the joy of the troops on the ground.

Another staple of this conflict has been Ukraine's proclivity for operating so-called "trophy" equipment captured from the Russians. The Ukraine Weapons Tracker OSINT group shared video Tuesday of a captured Russian MT-LB armored personnel carrier slinging a ZU-23-2 23mm autocannon. Adding insult to injury, it was seen being pulled by a previously captured Russian T-72B3 tank.

Ukraine has devised several ways for Russian troops to surrender, including setting up phone hotlines for those troops to call in and give up. In what appears to be the latest twist, the Ukrainian military is using drones to guide them toward surrender.

"The program had its genesis in late November, when the Ukrainian military released footage of a Russian soldier throwing his weapon to the ground, raising his hands and nervously following a path set out by a drone overhead, leading him to soldiers from the Ukrainian army’s 54th Mechanized Brigade," The New York Times reported. "A few weeks later, the Ukrainian General Staff released an instructional video explaining how Russian soldiers can surrender to a Ukrainian drone, and it is now part of a wide-ranging effort by Ukraine to persuade Russian soldiers to give up."

And finally, this all-out war has had wide-ranging effects. Like the case of two Turkish A400M military cargo jets that finally returned home after being stuck in Kyiv for nine months, having landed there just before the war broke out.

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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