Ukraine Strives to Shape Battlefield for Coming Counteroffensive
Kyiv continues to pursue a weeks-long effort to set favorable conditions for success in its coming counteroffensive. These “shaping operations” aim to undermine the Russian military’s ability to resist and divert its attention from Ukraine’s priority front.
In recent weeks, Ukraine has conducted a flurry of drone strikes against targets deep behind Russian lines. Last week, for example, Russian officials said Ukrainian drones attacked oil pipeline installations in Russia’s Tver and Pskov regions. Ukraine later launched multiple drone strikes at the oil refineries in Krasnodar Krai, east of Crimea. A fire broke out at one of them.
On Tuesday, weeks after it attacked the Kremlin with a pair of drones, Ukraine launched another drone barrage against Moscow and the surrounding region. Russia’s Defense Ministry claimed that Russian air defenses and electronic warfare downed all the drones, but at least three crashed into residential buildings, perhaps after veering off course.
More consequentially, Ukraine has conducted a series of strikes against military targets in the Russian rear, including its new British-supplied Storm Shadow air-launched cruise missiles. On May 26, Ukraine struck in the occupied port city of Berdiansk, likely targeting a Russian air defense system.
Ukraine launched another strike that day in occupied Mariupol, a Russian military hub in southeastern Ukraine. It allegedly hit a Russian base. Additional strikes reportedly followed in or around Mariupol, Berdiansk, nearby Novopetrivka, and Melitopol. Russian-installed occupation officials said Ukraine also hit a target in Luhansk Oblast, using a Western-supplied rocket artillery system.
Over the last two weeks, pro-Ukraine forces have conducted multiple raids into Belgorod Oblast on the Russian-Ukrainian border. Last week, two groups of Russian nationals fighting for Ukraine overran several towns near the border, apparently meeting little initial resistance. Russian military reinforcements eventually managed to push them back into Ukraine. (Kyiv officially denied responsibility for the incursion, although the troops apparently used American-made vehicles, which they presumably received from the Ukrainian military.)
Then, on Thursday, the pro-Ukraine forces conducted another incursion into Belgorod Oblast. Moscow claimed its troops foiled the attack. Kyiv may hope these raids will lead Russia to divert resources to shore up the border, weakening its defenses in other areas.
Russian Missile and Shahed Strikes
Just as Kyiv is laying the groundwork for its counteroffensive, Moscow is working to undermine it. Toward that end, Russia has intensified its missile and drone strikes, launching 18 major barrages over the last month alone. Russia’s winter strike campaign unsuccessfully sought to sap Kyiv’s political will by destroying Ukrainian critical infrastructure, and Moscow’s current effort has focused primarily on military targets.
Like in Russia’s winter strike campaign, Iranian-made Shahed-136/131 “suicide drones” have featured heavily in Moscow’s effort. According to the Ukrainian military, Russia is attempting to use these drones to pinpoint the location of Ukrainian air defense systems so it can bypass or target them using more precise and expensive missiles. In May, the White House said Iran had provided Russia with more than 400 Shahed drones since August. But a Ukrainian military intelligence official indicated in March that Moscow had received at least 1,000. Open-source evidence lends credence to that higher estimate. A Ukrainian military spokeswoman said Russia had recently received a new drone batch.
In addition to destroying high-value military targets, Moscow likely aims to exhaust Kyiv’s dwindling stocks of interceptor missiles for its Soviet-made S-300s and Buk-M1s surface-to-air missile systems. Those systems constitute the backbone of Ukraine’s air defenses, primarily responsible for keeping the Russian air force at bay. If those systems go offline, Russian aircraft will gain greater latitude to support ground forces and strike deep within Ukraine, and more Russian missiles and drones will find their mark.
Ukrainian troops consistently shoot down a high percentage of Russia’s drones and missiles, but some typically slip through. On Monday, Ukrainian war correspondent Illia Ponomarenko acknowledged that Russia “has recently significantly improved the effectiveness of its missile attacks. They have dealt a number of painful strikes that has affected Ukraine’s war effort.”
On the night of May 25-26, for example, Ukraine’s Air Force Command said Russia launched a barrage targeting military and critical-infrastructure facilities in eastern Ukraine. The Russian Defense Ministry said it targeted Ukrainian ammunition depots. Although the Ukrainian military allegedly downed most of the projectiles, Russia managed to strike an oil depot near Kharkiv and civilian buildings in Izyum that Russian sources claim housed ammunition and other military targets. Russia also struck Dnipro, an important logistics hub, allegedly hitting a rail station.
Early Sunday morning, Ukrainian authorities said a drone strike hit an unspecified infrastructure facility in Zhytomyr Oblast. Russian sources said the target was an ammunition depot. The next night, another Russian drone and missile strike, this time in Khmelnytskyi Oblast, knocked five aircraft out of service, damaged a runway, and caused fires in storage facilities containing fuel, lubricants and munitions, according to local authorities. The Russian military said the strike hit Ukrainian “command posts and radar stations, as well as aircraft, and munition depots.” Ukraine’s southern command also said Shahed strikes had damaged port infrastructure in the coastal city of Odesa, where the Russian military claimed it destroyed Ukraine’s last surviving warship, the Yuri Olefirenko, a Polnocny-C-class (Project 773) landing ship.
Later that day, Russia fired 11 ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles at targets in the Kyiv region, according to the Ukrainian military, which said it intercepted them all. But Russian sources, including President Vladimir Putin, claimed that Russia had struck Ukraine’s military intelligence headquarters.
Ukrainian authorities also reported Russian strikes in Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk oblasts. Russia then launched another round of drone strikes that night, followed by 10 ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles. The Ukrainian military claimed it intercepted all the missiles and all but two of the drones.