Russian-Ukrainian war: Zelensky’s European tour and the formation of the “aircraft coalition”

The situation at the front

Over the past week, the Ukrainian Defense Forces have managed to liberate Russian-occupied territories north and south of Bakhmut and improve their positions in the area. In particular, they could consolidate positions on the dominant heights in Berkhivka and Klishchiivka. The advance from Ivanivske and Stupochky through the canal to Klishchiivka allowed them to take control of the heights, which would let them carry out fire impact on the southern sector of the city more effectively. To the northwest of Bakhmut, Ukrainian units advanced to the Berkhivsky reservoir, occupied the prevailing heights, and can not only resume fire on Berkhivka and Yagidne but also the northern sector of the city.

Against the background of successful counterattacks by Ukrainian units outside Bakhmut, the situation in the city itself remained extremely critical. The Wagner mercenaries and Russian paratroopers operating there, despite the losses, continued exerting strong pressure on the multistoried buildings. Probably, they managed to force out the Ukrainian units from the western part of the city and reach the southeastern outskirts of Khromove village, which, in turn, allowed the owner of the Wagner Group, Prigozhin, to declare the capture of Bakhmut. “May 20, 2023. Today at noon Bakhmut was completely “taken”, – he said. Also, according to Prigozhin, from May 25, Wagner Group will withdraw its mercenaries from the city for rest and retraining.

Given the circumstances, it is not excluded that the Ukrainian units could indeed be withdrawn from the city. Nevertheless, such a development of events does not give the Russians any tactical advantage, but, on the contrary, puts them at an operational dead end, because they have not created the prerequisites for a further attack on Slovyansk and Kramatorsk. The control of Ukrainian units over almost all the main heights in the northwest and southwest of Bakhmut (the city itself is practically the lowest area in this area, therefore, Russian units in it are in a lowland) means that Russians fall into a kind of fire trap. When, during a recent visit to Bakhmut, the Ukrainian Ground Forces, Oleksandr Syrskyi, said that the Wagnerites feel themselves like rats in a mousetrap in Bakhmut, he most likely had in mind the above situation, in which, having reached the administrative borders of the city, the Russians cannot go any further to develop their success and become a target for the firepower of the Ukrainian forces. Consequently, even though Bakhmut remains the zone most saturated with forces and resources of the Russians, where they have enough ammunition and artillery to wipe the city off the face of the earth, they face a real threat that they will not be able to hold their positions not only around the city but also in it. Understanding the current situation, Prigozhin probably hastened to announce the withdrawal of his mercenaries from Bakhmut to prevent them from falling into this mousetrap and shift the blame for future losses of positions in the city to the Ministry of Defense. It should also be noted that commenting on Prigozhin’s statement, the Eastern Group of the Ukrainian Armed Forces stated that the Ukrainian forces were conducting an operation to encircle Bakhmut. Therefore, it is likely that, despite the victorious statements of the owner of the Wagner Group, the battle of Bakhmut is far from over.

European tour of President Zelensky

The news: From May 13 to May 15, President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky visited four European states – Italy, Germany, France, and Great Britain. The main tasks of the Ukrainian state delegation during these visits were:

– negotiations on the regular supply of weapons and military equipment;

– reaching an agreement between European partners on the provision of Western-style aircraft;

– resolving the issue of Ukraine’s status in relations with NATO at the next Alliance summit in Vilnius in July this year.

Details: As for the negotiations on the supply of weapons, they were quite effective. Thus, Germany announced the allocation of its largest package – of 2.7 billion Euros – which includes 18 self-propelled howitzers, artillery ammunition, missiles for air defense systems, 4 IRIS-T SLM air defense systems, and 12 IRIS-T SLS launchers, 30 tanks Leopard 1A, 20 Marder IFVs, over 100 armored fighting vehicles and over 200 reconnaissance UAVs.

France pledged to transfer long-range cruise missiles. As French President Emmanuel Macron noted, these will be missiles, the range of which “will allow Ukraine to resist.” Most likely, he meant the SCALP-EG cruise missiles, which are the French analog of the Storm Shadow missiles. He also said that more air defense systems and dozens of armored vehicles, in particular, AMX-10RCs combat vehicles, should also arrive in Ukraine in the coming weeks.

On the day of the Ukrainian president’s visit, the UK government announced the delivery of hundreds of air defense missiles and hundreds of new attack UAVs with a range of more than 200 km to Ukraine, in addition to the Storm Shadow cruise missiles announced last week. The British government also said in a statement that this summer the country will begin the initial stage of training Ukrainian pilots on Western-style aircraft.

In Italy, the President of Ukraine announced “important decisions” on air defense. On May 16, it was reported that Ukraine received the first Italian-French SAMP-T air defense system. In addition, it became known earlier that Ukraine and Italy are discussing the possibility of joint production of components for Skynex short-range air defense systems, which can be effective in protecting against attack UAVs.

Why it’s important: President Zelensky’s visit to Italy, Germany, France, and the UK is explained by the fact that these are the leading states of NATO and the EU, on which the adoption of many political, security and economic decisions in both organizations, in particular those related to support for Ukraine, depends.

The visit took place on the eve of the G7 summit in Japan and was important in terms of coordinating and harmonization the positions of Ukraine with the G7 positions, which the four above-mentioned countries are members of. It is very important for Ukraine that strategic decisions are made at the G7 summit that meet its interests, in particular, on the continuation of its military and financial support, as well as the continuation and strengthening of sanctions against Russia. Another important issue is the security model for Ukraine, in particular, what are its prospects for NATO and security guarantees. In this context, it should be noted that, during a meeting with European leaders, the Ukrainian president achieved the signing of public declarations, which, in particular, noted that their states “fully support” the Ukraine-NATO commission as a platform for further strengthening and expanding ongoing cooperation”. The main goal of such cooperation is “to help Ukraine move towards the Euro-Atlantic family in accordance with the Bucharest Declaration”.

In the context of military support, in addition to receiving regular defense packages, during the meetings of the Ukrainian president with European leaders, special attention was paid to the prospect of receiving Western aircraft by Ukraine. Here, by the way, it could be said that a similar tour of the Ukrainian president already took place in February, and then it became known about the creation of a “tank coalition” and the transfer of other heavy equipment to Ukraine, which had previously been a kind of “taboo” for European leaders. There is reason to believe that the May visit of the Ukrainian president to European capitals laid the foundation for the “aircraft coalition”.

The events that began to unfold after it only confirms this. Thus, the British Prime Minister’s spokesman said that the UK and the Netherlands intend to form an “international coalition” not only to purchase aircraft for Ukraine but also to train Ukrainian pilots. 

However, for the process to be started, the consent of the United States was required. And so, at the G7 summit in Japan, President Biden said that Washington would support joint efforts with allies and partners to train Ukrainian pilots on fourth-generation aircraft, including F-16 fighters. Sometime later, national security adviser to the American president, Jake Sullivan, said during a briefing that in the coming months, the allies would discuss the time frame for Ukraine to receive F-16 aircraft, as well as their number. Thus, Washington gave notions to European NATO allies that the US would allow them to export F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine.

Several European countries have American-made F-16s, including the Netherlands, which has shown a willingness to transfer some of them to Ukraine. And recently there was news that the Netherlands canceled the contract with the private company Draken International, which was supposed to sell F-16 fighters after they were removed from service. For its part, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry has already announced that the F-16s will be delivered to Ukraine this fall.

Patriot vs Kinzhal: Round 2

The news: On the night of May 16, the Russians launched another air attack on Ukraine, during which 18 missiles were used (six X-47 Kinzhal missiles, nine Kalibr cruise missiles, three Iskander-M ballistic missiles), Shahed-136/131 loitering munitions, and Orlan-10 and SuperCam reconnaissance UAVs. All air targets were successfully intercepted by Ukrainian air defense units.

Why it’s important: The air attack on May 16 was rather atypical in recent times. For the first time, the Russians have used a significant number of their Kinzhal hypersonic missiles. Previously, there were only single launches of these missiles on Ukrainian territory. Such many Kinzhal missiles were probably because the Russian command wanted to find out the possibilities for the functioning of the Ukrainian air defense after its reinforcement by Western air defense systems, in particular the U.S. air defense systems Patriot. The task of the Kalibr, Iskander, and loitering munitions, most likely, was to disperse the attention of the Ukrainian air defense and divert it to false targets, thereby allowing the Kinzhal missiles to break through.

However, Ukrainian air defense was able to destroy all six Kinzhal missiles, which is a unique event for both the developers of the Patriot system and the Ukrainian military. Patriot systems confirmed the ability to deal with group attacks of hypersonic missiles, and the Ukrainian air defense crew showed that they can operate effectively in such difficult and extreme conditions.

It should also be noted that the number of air attacks on Ukraine, in particular, on its capital, has recently become more frequent. This may be due to an attempt by the Russians to disrupt the Ukrainian offensive operation. By shelling Ukrainian cities and trying to destroy ammunition and fuel depots, and accumulations of equipment in the Ukrainian rear, the Russians thus want to force the Ukrainian military command to pull air defenses away from the front line and leave Ukrainian units there uncovered from above.

Therefore, it should be expected that the Russians will continue launching missile strikes on the territory of Ukraine, in particular at Ukrainian cities, and will seek all means and opportunities for this by combining and experimenting.

Chinese government landing in Kyiv

The news: On May 16-17, a Chinese delegation headed by the government’s Special Representative for Eurasian Affairs Li Hui paid an official visit to Ukraine. He is the highest-ranking Chinese official to visit Ukraine since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022.

As part of his visit, the Chinese diplomat met with President Volodymyr Zelensky, head of the presidential office Andriy Yermak, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, as well as the ministers of infrastructure, energy, and defense.

In a conversation with the country’s top leadership, Hui outlined China’s position on ending the Russian-Ukrainian war, which is based on the “peace plan” proposed by Chinese leader Xi Jinping in February. In particular, he repeated that Beijing is ready to be a “peace mediator” in resolving the war unleashed by Russia, which China calls the “Ukrainian crisis.”

For its part, the Ukrainian side held a briefing on the security situation in Ukraine, during which, in particular, it was noted that Ukraine is striving to establish a sustainable and just peace, and restore its territorial integrity, as the Ukrainian peace formula implies.

After Ukraine, Li Hui planned to visit Poland, France, Germany, and Russia. The US State Department called this visit important, noting that it is important for China to hear the position of Ukraine.

Why it’s important: China continues to take steps to demonstrate that it is a global power. Since the Russian-Ukrainian war has an impact on global security, Beijing wants to make it clear – primarily to the West – that its solution should be made with its participation and taking into account its interests. The Chinese also want to show that it is their contribution to de-escalation that will be the most significant and effective since only they are the party with which everyone is ready to talk – both Ukraine, the West, and Russia.

At the same time, Beijing likely understands that so far there are no prerequisites for any meaningful peace talks. Therefore, this visit is most likely a “work for the future.” With a visit to Kyiv and other European capitals, China is probing positions, assessing the situation on the ground to work out its position and build a system of personal ties, which must be ready by the time the peace talks become real.

For their part, after the meeting with the Chinese delegation, both the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry and the Office of the President publicly announced specific red lines that Ukraine will not cross and will not allow them to be crossed by the Chinese or the other side. First of all, this relates to the impossibility of any territorial concessions. And this suggests that Kyiv has no illusions about the game regarding the Russian-Ukrainian war waged by Beijing.

Igor Fedyk

Head of the South Eastern Europe Section

Igor coordinates the South Eastern Europe Section of the New Geopolitics Research Network. He previously worked as the Head of the Balkan section of the Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies, as well as the Deputy Editor-in-chief of the English-language magazine The Ukrainian Defense Review.

His current research interests are focused on the political, economic and social aspects of the development of the South Eastern Europe and Balkan countries, their interstate and inter-ethnic relations, as well as the relations with third parties (countries not from the region, international organizations), which have an important impact on the situation in the region and in Europe.

He is the author of a number of articles and analyses in various Ukrainian and foreign Media.

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May 2023
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