May 31

Sitrep for May 29-31, 2024 (as of 8:30 a.m. UTC+3)

Western Assistance

The United States has officially allowed Ukraine to use Western weapons to attack targets on Russian territory, albeit a small part of it. This follows weeks of extensive public campaigning to ease the ban on their use on Russian soil. Now, the Armed Forces of Ukraine can use artillery against ammunition storage facilities and military equipment depots, as well as Russian troops and field camps, in areas where troops and military assets are directly involved in the offensive on the Kharkiv axis. Specifically, this mainly concerns the Belgorod region.

The following weapons are allowed to be used: Excalibur artillery shells (which have not been seen in use for a long time), DPICM (cluster munitions) and GMLRS (high-precision rockets for HIMARS MLRS with a range of up to 80 km [50 mi]). However, ATACMS tactical ballistic missiles are not among the weapons permitted for use against targets in Russia.

In addition, the AFU are now allowed to shoot down Russian aircraft and helicopters that pose an imminent threat to Ukraine. However, the use of American weapons against Russian aircraft on the ground is still prohibited.

As far as we know, there are no operating airfields in the authorized area. Even the Belgorod Airport stopped being used by the Russian Armed Forces after an Ilyushin Il-76 strategic airlifter was shot down on Jan. 24, 2024. According to Russian authorities, the aircraft was carrying Ukrainian prisoners of war. Recently, Ukraine indirectly acknowledged the loss of these POWs. On May 20, Bohdan Okhrimenko, the head of the Coordination Headquarters Secretariat, said that Russian authorities are not returning the bodies of Ukrainian soldiers, including those killed in the plane crash.

Although this permission is aimed only at strengthening Ukraine's defensive capabilities, it is already a huge step forward. We believe that all restrictions on the AFU's use of Western weapons against military targets on Russian territory should be lifted. Our team has published an article about the consequences of the restrictions imposed on the AFU since the beginning of the Russian offensive on the Kharkiv region this spring, noting that, among other things, they are the reason why ZALA Lancet UAVs have become one of the main threats to Ukrainian military vehicles on the Kharkiv axis. Russian operators were able to launch the drones almost from the border line, feeling safe because Ukrainian artillery had to come close to the border to engage them. In addition, due to the limited number of roads suitable for moving artillery systems, self-propelled howitzers (e.g. 22S2 Bohdana 155mm wheeled self-propelled howitzers) were often hit themselves, as the small number of routes could be constantly monitored by Russian reconnaissance drones. At the same time, the AFU retaliated with GMLRS fire in other directions.

The lifting of some of the restrictions is, of course, very important. However, it is worth noting that this decision is somewhat belated and was taken after the town of Vovchansk was partially destroyed. We hope that in the event of an attack on the Sumy region, the US will expand the AFU's strike zone on Russian soil without waiting for the destruction of the nearest villages and towns.

As for lifting the restrictions on the use of ATACMS missiles against Russian military airfields located within internationally recognized borders, this might reduce the intensity of strikes against Ukrainian cities. Russian aircraft would no longer feel safe within 300 km [186 mi] of the Russia-Ukraine border, as was the case in Crimea after long-range ATACMS missiles were first handed over to Ukraine.

Interestingly enough, after a number of successful strikes against Russian airfields in the occupied parts of Ukraine, Russian forces began to build shelters for their aircraft. Pro-Russian Telegram channels identified such shelters in Marinovka, Volgograd region, although Rybar, a prominent pro-Russian Telegram channel, claims that this is a unique case and that the hangars were funded by a private individual.

According to Yuriy Sak, an adviser to the Ukrainian defense minister, the AFU have already used British Storm Shadow missiles against targets within Russian territory, although, so far, we have not come across such evidence. While in early May, Foreign Secretary Lord David Cameron did approve the use of British weapons on Russian soil, in his recent interview, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stated that Ukraine had not received official permission to do so.

French President Emmanuel Macron has supported the proposal to grant Ukraine permission to use Western weapons against military targets on Russian soil, although he failed to mention whether it applied to French SCALP-EG missiles.

Sweden has announced a military aid package worth €1.16 billion [$1.26 billion] for Ukraine, with its most significant component being an ASC 890 airborne surveillance and control aircraft, analogous to the Russian Beriev A-50 AEW&C aircraft. While the Swedish aircraft is smaller and has a shorter surveillance range than its Russian counterpart, it boasts a longer flight endurance of about five hours. To offset the diminution of its own defense capabilities, Sweden will expedite the procurement of new Saab S 106 GlobalEye AEW&C aircraft, which offer similar capabilities.

According to the manufacturer, the radar installed on the ASC 890 can detect targets up to 450 kilometers [280 mi] away. It is also worth noting that the detection range largely depends on the size of the target, with larger airborne objects, such as fighter jets, more easily detectable at greater distances than smaller ones, such as loitering munitions or cruise missiles.

The addition of AEW&C aircraft will significantly enhance the capabilities of the F-16 fighter jets promised to Ukraine. They could potentially be integrated into the Link 16 military tactical data link network used by NATO countries, allowing the direct transmission of information to Western SAM systems. However, as far as we know, the AFU do not have access to this network-centric system, likely due to security concerns regarding the protection of NATO’s defense capabilities. Although there have been rumors that the AFU have developed their own data transmission protocol, it remains unclear whether it can interface with Western aircraft.

We had not previously heard of plans to supply Ukraine with “flying radars,” and we remain skeptical of the claim made by pro-Russian blogger Aleksey Voevoda about the possibility of retraining Ukrainian An-26 pilots to operate Western AEW&Cs aircraft.

In addition to the ASC 890 aircraft, Sweden will transfer its entire fleet of Pbv 302 infantry fighting vehicles, which are equipped with 20mm cannons, to support new Ukrainian brigades. These vehicles were decommissioned in the 2010s and have been kept in storage for about ten years, which is relatively short, so it is assumed that a significant number of them are still in good condition. According to the Military Balance reference book, Sweden had 239 such vehicles in 2023, and by 2024, 172 remained. The Pansarbandvagn 302 is a Swedish development that was not exported. Naturally, Ukrainian drivers will need to undergo training to operate them.

Furthermore, as part of this military aid package, Sweden will supply AMRAAM air-to-air missiles. Their exact modification is not yet known, but according to some rumors, the delivery of the AIM-120C-5 AMRAAM version with a range of 100 km [62 mi] is possible. Along with the ASC 890 aircraft and F-16 fighter aircraft, these missiles will be a formidable weapon and can seriously interfere with Russian bombers launching air-dropped bombs equipped with Universal Gliding and Correction Modules (UMPKs).

The Danish Foreign Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen reported that the issue of using the F-16 fighter aircraft set to be transferred to Ukraine for strikes against military facilities on Russian territory was discussed in parliament earlier. From the beginning, Denmark has considered such strikes to be a part of self-defense and does not object to them.

General Dynamics has built a new plant in Texas for the production of artillery shells in 10 months. Congress allocated more than $500 million for its construction. The plant is expected to produce 30,000 155mm shells per month.

Over the past week, the AFU have carried out two strikes on radar stations of early-warning radar systems in the Krasnodar and Orenburg regions. The Washington Post quoted in a recent article US officials who expressed concern about these strikes. They believe that Russia may consider such attacks as reducing its ability to detect hostile nuclear activity early on, which in turn could lead to escalation from Russia.

Strategic weapons expert Pavel Podvig explained in an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that Ukraine’s official statements about using these radar stations in the current war are inaccurate. The lower detection limit of the radar station, such as the Voronezh-M (which was attacked in Armavir), is 150 kilometers [93 mi]. It is possible to adjust it to a lower limit, but given the curvature of the Earth’s surface, an above-the-horizon radar theoretically cannot detect targets below 40 kilometers [25 mi] at a distance of 500 kilometers [310 mi], and below 80 kilometers [50 mi] at a distance of 800 kilometers [497 mi] (approximately in the central part of Ukraine). Meanwhile, ATACMS tactical ballistic missiles reach an altitude of 50 kilometers [31 mi] at the highest point of their trajectory, and the service ceiling of F-16 fighter aircraft is about 15 kilometers [9 mi]. Additionally, only one of the radars located in Armavir covers a direction intersecting with Ukraine’s territory, and it only affects a small area south of the Zaporizhzhia region. The other radars are oriented in different directions. Thus, damaging these radar stations does not provide practical benefits in the current war.

Ukraine might be attempting to show the West that if even damage to such sensitive objects as components of Russia’s nuclear deterrent does not provoke a response, then most of Russia’s claims about red lines are bluffs. Therefore, it is not necessary to fear that strikes with Western weapons on targets in Russian territory will lead to escalation. However, this seems to be causing the opposite reaction among US officials.

Moreover, such strikes, along with other long-range attacks on targets deep within Russian territory, may be intended to force Russia to redirect part of its air defense systems from the frontline to protect these objects.

Ukrainian and Russian Strikes

On the night of May 31, Russian forces attacked Kharkiv once again: an unidentified projectile struck a five-story residential building in the Novobavarskyi district of the city. Currently, six civilians have been reported killed and another 26 injured. The search and rescue operation is ongoing, with a possibility of four more people trapped under the rubble. Additionally, a second strike, occurring 25 minutes after the first, resulted in damage to rescue vehicles.

On the night of May 30, Ukrainian forces carried out a combined attack on targets in Crimea.

As a result of an ATACMS missile attack on a ferry crossing in Kerch, two ferries that carried out rail and road transportation across the strait received significant damage. Reportedly, one of them ran aground, thereby blocking the Kerch ferry crossing. In addition, as a result of this strike, the Mechta [Dream] pilot boat was sunk.

The Main Intelligence Directorate of Ukraine stated that in Uzka Bay, on the western coast of Crimea, two KS-701 Tunets [Tuna] type boats were sunk as a result of an attack by maritime surface drones. It is worth noting that the boats were originally designed for recreational boating and their cost is several times lower than that of Ukrainian unmanned surface vessels.

On the night of May 31, Ukrainian forces attacked the Kavkaz port in Taman, Krasnodar region, allegedly with R-360 Neptune missiles. As a result, an oil depot caught fire, which could not be extinguished until at least 7 a.m.

In addition, on the same night, Ukrainian drones again reached Russia’s constituent Republic of Tatarstan. There is currently no information about the target or aftermath of this attack.

Frontline Situation Update

In recent days, there have been no significant RuAF progress on either the Donetsk or Kharkiv axis. Vovchansk remains in Ukrainian hands, and it seems that, despite ongoing attacks, the Russian assault on the Kharkiv region has run out of steam. Videos continue to emerge showing ongoing fighting, but these yield no significant results. We still do not see Russia having the reserves necessary to resume offensive operations. It appears that by attempting to attack in the Kharkiv region, Russian forces have distracted themselves from the main direction of fighting.

At the same time, indirect evidence—reports of reduced training periods due to a large influx of mobilized soldiers and news of a large amount of military equipment being transferred from Sweden—suggests that new units of the AFU are being formed.

Thus, Russia has not achieved any significant results in the Kharkiv region, while Ukraine has accumulated some resources and received additional assistance, including the lifting of some restrictions on the use of Western weapons.