MIL-OSI Global: Ukraine recap: western aid now boosting defensive morale as battle for Kharkiv continues

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Source: The Conversation – UK – By Jonathan Este, Senior International Affairs Editor, Associate Editor

The latest reports emerging from the frontlines in Ukraine are that the artillery ammunition the defending troops have been waiting for all these months is finally beginning to filter through to them. But it’s not enough, says the authoritative US thinktank, the Institute for the Study of War. The ISW quotes Ukrainian army sources in defensive positions north of the city of Kharkiv, which has been facing a concerted Russian offensive since May 9, that attacking troops enjoy a five-to-one artillery advantage.

This close to Ukraine’s border with Russia (some of Ukraine’s defensive positions are no more than 12km to 15km inside Ukraine), it is relatively easy for Russian military units to reequip and rotate in and out of Russia. The region close to Russia’s border with Ukraine has hitherto been a sanctuary for the attacking army, mainly because western weapons came with the proviso attached that they mustn’t be used to attack targets across the border inside Russia itself.

The battle for Kharkiv Oblast, June 5 2024, according to the Institute for the Study of War.
Institute for the Study of War

The rationale for western reluctance to allow its munitions to be used against Russia itself is quite simple. The fear that this would escalate into a confrontation between Russia and Nato. Pretty much every western declaration of support for Kyiv has been met by threats from Vladimir Putin or one of his proxies, often referring to Russia’s nuclear capability. Western leaders have been unwilling to call Putin’s bluff, understandably.

But the urgency of the situation appears to have focused minds in Europe and the US in recent weeks. First, the UK and France relaxed their restrictions. The UK’s foreign minister, David Cameron, told Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, on a recent trip to Kyiv that Ukraine should “absolutely has the right to strike back at Russia”. On May 28, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, gave a press conference at Brandenburg in Germany where Macron agreed they wanted to allow Ukraine to “neutralise the military sites from which the missiles are fired and, basically, the military sites from which Ukraine is attacked”.

But still Washington vacillated over the issue. While the state department was advising US president Joe Biden that Ukrainians should have their hands untied and be allowed to defend themselves, the defense department was not convinced. In the end, the secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, prevailed. On May 30, the White House announced: “The president recently directed his team to ensure that Ukraine is able to use US weapons for counter-fire purposes in Kharkiv so Ukraine can hit back at Russian forces hitting them or preparing to hit them.”

Christoph Bluth, an expert in international security at the University of Bradford, observes that Kyiv appears to have acted on Biden’s words almost immediately. Over the weekend of June 1-2, Ukraine launched a missile strike against a Russian air defence installation in Belgorod Oblast – about 80km from Kharkiv and well within Russian territory.

That’s not to say there are not still caveats in western military support for Ukraine, which is limited in the sort of targets it can attack and what it can use to attack them. And, as we’ve come to expect, Putin responded to the news of Biden’s change of heart with the usual promises to make the west regret this move. But, as Bluth suggests, maybe the frequency of Putin’s threats mean that they are losing their potency.

Read more:
Ukraine war: new US stance on targeting Russia gives Kharkiv’s defenders a fighting chance

Since Vladimir Putin sent his war machine into Ukraine on February 24 2022, The Conversation has called upon some of the leading experts in international security, geopolitics and military tactics to help our readers understand the big issues. You can also subscribe to our fortnightly recap of expert analysis of the conflict in Ukraine.

Regional manoeuvring

If Ukraine’s western allies are doubling down on their support, it appears that a number of countries in Moscow’s sphere of influence in central Asia are taking steps to distance themselves from Putin’s control.

After attack on Moscow’s Crocus City Hall on March 22, apparently by jihadis from Tajikistan, the Russian authorities cracked down on central Asian workers living in Russia, deporting Tajik nationals as well as workers from Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Relations between Moscow and Russia’s central Asia neighbours have become increasingly frayed since the invasion in February 2022, writes Anastassiya Mahon, an expert in security issues at Aberystwyth University.

She notes that while they stopped short of condemning the invasion in the United Nations, all except Turkmenistan opened their borders to allow Russians to escape conscription. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the president of Kazakhstan, refused to recognise Russia’s annexation of areas in eastern Ukraine in the summer of 2022 and has also said he has no intention of helping Russia to circumvent western sanctions.

These countries all remain members of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), which is Russia’s version of Nato. But last year, the leaders of the Kyrgyz Republic and Kazakhstan met with the US president in New York, where they ostentatiously avoided discussing security issues, preferring instead to talk about responses to climate change and stability in Afghanistan.

But western leaders, with an eye to the abundant natural resources in the region, are clearly keen to exploit what they see as the potential to drive a wedge between Putin his regional allies.

Read more:
Ukraine war: why central Asian countries want to move away from Russian control

Looking west, meanwhile, it was revealed recently that Moscow may still have designs on the Swedish island of Gotland, which sits in the Baltic Sea, halfway between Sweden and Estonia, and only 300km from where Russia’s Baltic fleet is based. During the cold war, Sweden maintained a constant military presence on the island before demilitarising in 2005. Russia’s annexation of Crimea prompted Sweden to place troops on Gotland once again and now, with Sweden one of the latest countries to join Nato, Stockholm is concerned that Moscow might have renewed interest in the island, possession of which would give Moscow de facto control of the Baltic region.

Maritime tensions rise in the Baltic Sea.
Peter Hermes Furian/Shutterstock

Natasha Lindstaedt, an expert in international politics at the University of Essex, explains that a decree published by Russia’s ministry of defence (before being withdrawn) called for a reassessment of Russia’s maritime borders with Finland and Kaliningrad, which has Sweden (as well as Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) very twitchy – and you only have to look at the map to see why. A series of Russian maritime provocations has added to the tensions in the Baltic, Lindstaedt reports.

Read more:
Putin’s designs on a Baltic island are leading Sweden to prepare for war

Hearts, minds and young lives

Late last month, Russia bombed the FaktorDruk printing press and warehouse in Kharkiv, killing seven people, injuring 22 and destroying 50,000 books. Ukraine’s writers lined up to vent their rage at this act of what one publisher called a “cynical crime against culture”. But for Emily Finer and Viktoriia Medvied of St Andrews University, the greatest loss from this act of vandalism is to children.

Because there has been a concerted effort among Ukraine’s writers to produce a wave of books aimed at offering comfort to traumatise children, whether in exile from their homes in occupied parts of the country, or those who live with the ever-present threat of the war coming to their towns and cities.

Here, Finer and Medvied give us a selection of some of the best of this children’s literature, which aims to provide relatable stories offering comfort and hope to children growing up in wartime and living with trauma.

Read more:
Ukraine war: a wave of books to give traumatised children hope

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MIL OSI – Global Reports