Ukraine Situation Report: Putin Now Talking About Creating A “Buffer Zone”

On the back of Vladimir Putin’s inevitable victory in Russia’s presidential election, the Kremlin has said that it’s looking at plans to create a so-called “buffer zone” in Ukrainian territory close to the border. While anything other than another term for President Putin would have been unthinkable, Moscow is now having to confront the threat of constant Ukrainian strikes on its own territory, and especially its critical energy sector. This, in addition to cross-border incursions by pro-Ukrainian forces that are more robust than they have been in the past, are examples of how things are becoming more complicated on the home front.

The idea of a buffer zone to protect Russian territory from Ukrainian attacks was raised by Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, who explained to reporters:

“Against the backdrop of drone attacks and the shelling of our territory — public facilities, residential buildings — measures must be taken to secure these territories. They can only be secured by creating some kind of buffer zone so that any means that the enemy uses to strike us are out of range.”

Clearly, such an ambition is entirely unrealistic, at this point, given the fact that Ukraine has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to use long-range drones to attack Russian targets as far away as Moscow and St. Petersburg. As noted earlier, Russian oil infrastructure has been subject to extensive attacks by Ukrainian drones in recent weeks and has had a major impact. Among recent targets have been oil facilities in Kaluga, Nizhny Novgorod, Oryol, Ryazan, and Samara.

Nevertheless, there has been growing concern in Russia about the much more concerted attacks aimed against its border areas, especially in the Belgorod region, which has come under regular attack — including by artillery and rockets — since 2022.

Attacks on Belgorod were stepped up in the run-up to the Russian election and today the local governor said that another two people had been killed and four more injured by Ukrainian shelling. The latest strikes reportedly happened in the village of Nikolskoye.

After winning his fifth term as president, Putin also referenced the possibility of establishing a buffer zone:

“I do not exclude that, bearing in mind the tragic events taking place today, that we will be forced at some point, when we deem it appropriate, to create a certain ‘sanitary zone’ in the territories today under the Kyiv regime,” he said.

Putin added that such a zone might have to be big enough to stop foreign-made weapons from striking Russian territory. That ambition reveals the challenges of such a plan but also ignores the fact that, so far, Western-supplied long-range weapons have not been used to hit targets within Russia, only being used on Russian-occupied territory, including Crimea. Meanwhile, Ukraine is using domestically produced one-way attack drones, as well as converted Soviet-era jet-powered reconnaissance drones, to strike targets deep within the Russian Federation proper.

Were Russia to attempt to create some kind of buffer zone within Ukraine, the obvious candidate might well be the Kharkiv region. The Kremlin’s forces already seized much of this territory at the start of their full-scale invasion in February 2022, but by September of the same year, they had been removed from this area by Ukrainian counteroffensives.

Ukrainian presidential aide Mykhailo Podolyak told Reuters today that Putin’s statement about the buffer zone is a clear declaration that the war will escalate.

“This is … a direct manifest statement that the war will only escalate,” he said.

Meanwhile, Putin’s landslide election victory has been met with both fierce criticism and congratulations.

Chinese President Xi Jinping congratulated Putin and said that Beijing would continue to promote its partnership with Moscow.

“Your re-election is a full demonstration of the support of the Russian people for you,” Xi was quoted as saying by Xinhua News.

Immediately prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Beijing and Moscow cemented their ties with a “no limits” partnership being declared.

The European Union said that the election took place under highly restricted conditions “exacerbated by Russia’s illegal war of aggression against Ukraine” and noted that no international observers were present.

The E.U. also said that “so-called elections” held in the territories of Ukraine that Russia has temporarily occupied were “null and void.”

“This has not been a free and fair election. It has been based on repression and intimidation,” said the E.U.’s chief diplomat, Josep Borrell.

In the United States, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby, said: “The elections are obviously not free nor fair given how Mr. Putin has imprisoned political opponents and prevented others from running against him.”

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, one of Ukraine’s staunchest allies, U.K. Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron said that Putin’s election victory highlighted the “depth of repression” in Russia.

“These Russian elections starkly underline the depth of repression under President Putin’s regime, which seeks to silence any opposition to his illegal war,” Cameron said.

The French Foreign Ministry slammed the Russian election for being neither free nor democratic while praising the courage of “the many Russian citizens who peacefully protested against this attack on their fundamental political rights.”

Among those seen casting their vote in the election was Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff of the Russian Armed Forces and first deputy minister of defence. Gerasimov made a rare public appearance as he placed his vote together with Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu. The status of Gerasimov is often a point of inquiry and rumor. In recent weeks, there had been rumors that Gerasimov may have been killed in a Ukrainian attack on Saki in Crimea. The latest sighting should finally put that unconfirmed speculation to rest.

Before diving into more developments from the conflict in Ukraine, The War Zone readers can review our previous coverage here.

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While the Kremlin talks up the possibility of a buffer zone in Ukraine, it also appears to be having problems closer to home, with strikes on its territory by its own military. Reports state that the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) have been bombing targets within Russian Federation borders, part of the fallout of the cross-border raids launched by pro-Ukrainian forces last week.

At the time, the Russian Ministry of Defense said “terrorist formations” had tried to invade Russia’s Belgorod region, with an attack launched in three directions, supported by tanks and other armored fighting vehicles. The Russians also said that another four attacks were repulsed in Russia’s Kursk region. Three separate groups were reportedly involved: the Freedom of Russia Legion, the Siberian Battalion, and the Russian Volunteer Corps.

A Ukrainian journalist, Andriy Tsaplienko, shared a video of an explosion on Friday that he says provided evidence of a VKS airstrike on Russian soil.

A volunteer from the Freedom of Russia Legion told Newsweek that the rebel fighters plan to eventually “march on Moscow,” to achieve their goal of the “liberation of Russia from Putin.” The fighter added: “We may not be able to pull it off now, but that is our overarching mission.”

In an interview over the weekend, French President Emmanuel Macron said that Western ground operations in Ukraine might be necessary “at some point.”

The statement comes a month after Macron refused to rule out putting troops on the ground in Ukraine, something that caused no little consternation among some other European allies.

Despite that — and a predictably hostile reception from Russia — the French president has not backed down from his position.

“Maybe at some point — I don’t want it, I won’t take the initiative — we will have to have operations on the ground, whatever they may be, to counter the Russian forces,” Macron told newspaper Le Parisien in an interview.

Russian drone and missile attacks against Ukraine continue. The Ukrainian Air Force claimed that of the 22 drones launched by Russia overnight, its defenses destroyed 17. The air force also wrote on Telegram that Russia launched seven missiles against Ukraine overnight, although it’s unclear what targets they hit and if any were intercepted.

The video below shows the purported destruction of an Iranian-designed Shahed-type drone over Odesa by Ukrainian air defenses on the previous night.

Over the weekend there were reports from Ukraine of dozens of Russian attacks close to the border, with officials claiming that there were more than 60 shelling incidents in the district of Sumy, northeastern Ukraine, on Sunday alone; these are said to have killed one person. Previous heavy shelling by Russia had led to a mass evacuation of the Sumy region having been launched late last week.

Ukrainian officials also said that one person was killed and at least eight injured in a Russian missile attack on the Black Sea port city of Mykolaiv, also on Sunday.

Russian tactical nuclear weapons have arrived in neighboring Belarus, according to unnamed Western officials, speaking to Foreign Policy. Plans to move the weapons — understood to be air-dropped freefall bombs — several hundred miles closer to NATO territory had been outlined in June last year, but there had not been confirmation from officials that they had arrived there until now.

Authorities in the pro-Russia region of Transnistria, in Moldova, blamed Ukraine for what they said was a drone strike on a helicopter at a military base in the breakaway republic on Sunday. A video appeared across social media showing a drone flying toward a Mi-8 Hip helicopter, which then burst into flames.

Moldova’s Bureau for Reintegration Policies said in a statement that after examining video footage, they “do not confirm any attack” on Transnistria and called it “an attempt to cause fear and panic in the region.”

There are certainly very legitimate questions about the incident as depicted in the video. First, it’s notable that the helicopter has been out of action for at least several years, based on satellite imagery.

The fact that a video camera was set up and able to record the moment of the purported drone strike is also puzzling, while open-source imagery analysts have raised several issues with the apparent path of the drone toward the helicopter, as the drone suddenly disappears from the footage. Speculation has also been raised about the nature of the explosion, which seems to have more in common with a detonation outward from inside the helicopter, rather than it having been struck by an external object.

Nevertheless, the incident is symptomatic of tensions surrounding Transnistria.

Earlier this year, officials in Transnistria requested from Russia for protection against what it says is a concerted campaign directed against its economy by the Moldovan government.

There have also been reports suggesting that Transnistria may be poised to stage a referendum on its potential annexation by Russia.

The breakaway republic already receives economic and military support from Moscow, including around 1,500 Russian soldiers stationed on Transnistrian soil.

In the past, Moscow has also tried pushing the narrative that Ukraine is poised to make a military move against the region, without any evidence to back those claims.

Russia has lost examples of its TOS-1A thermobaric rocket launchers in the past, notably to Ukrainian drones. The results, however, are never less than dramatic, with the thermobaric rockets used by the system resulting in enormous secondary explosions, sending debris flying in all directions. The same is true of this apparently recent engagement, again pitting a Ukrainian drone against the notorious TOS-1.

Somewhat older developments from the battlefield next, but no less interesting. The following video is said to have been taken in late February, during house-to-house fighting in Krasnohorivka, in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine.

According to information provided along with the video, the footage was recorded by Ukrainian soldiers of the 3rd Assault Brigade, using GoPro cameras. The combat took place as the brigade prevented an attempted Russian breakthrough and ended with the Ukrainians clearing Krasnohorivka of enemy forces.

“We were assigned this task at 2:00 a.m. and in the morning we left,” Estet, a platoon commander with the 1st Assault Company, 2nd Assault Battalion, recalled.

Estet says that the Russians ignored the offer to surrender.

“Their skills were not at a high level,” Darvin, the acting commander of the 3rd Assault Company, added. “But the level of resilience and motivation was good. Even when they were surrounded, although they had no opportunity to retreat or run away, because they would have been killed immediately, they still fought and fought back. It cost us some effort to destroy them.”

While the Ukrainians relied heavily on grenades and first-person-view (FPV) drones, the video also shows how they used an M113 armored personnel carrier to ensure a rapid evacuation of casualties. They were ultimately successful in holding Krasnohorivka, denying the Russians a potential bridgehead for breaking through the front line.

The extensive Russian efforts to use electronic warfare on the battlefield appear to have led to a new development.

According to Russian reports, the mobile Borshchevik system is designed to detect Starlink terminals — which provide high-speed internet connections vital to Ukrainian battlefield communications — and the first examples are now being completed.

The same account claims that the mobile direction-finding complex “can detect the location of Starlink terminals at a distance of up to 10 kilometers [6.2 miles] with an accuracy of 60 meters [66 yards].”

“The complex can be installed on a vehicle chassis, which makes it convenient to use on the front line,” the source adds.

Details are now available for the following electronic warfare complex, described as a multi-frequency system and apparently seen undergoing trials in the Kherson region in southern Ukraine. The video is, however, further evidence that Ukraine is working hard to keep up with Russian developments in this field, in which it was regarded as something of a leader — at least prior to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

A new video reveals that Ukraine has received at least one more U.S.-made UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, following the appearance last year of the first example in service with the Main Directorate of Intelligence of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, or GUR.

The video in question was posted by the GUR on its social media accounts after Russia claimed that a Ukrainian UH-60 had been shot down with 20 soldiers on board. In fact, the helicopter seen in the video used to support the Russian claim, embedded below, appears to be a Mi-24 Hind assault helicopter.

Painted im olive drab, with prominent Ukrainian ID markings, the UH-60 in the GUR video is seen taking off from a landing site, loaded with soldiers. The first UH-60 to be identified in GUR service is seen in the background. Notably, the new helicopter has mountings for two defensive M240 machine guns. Further photos of the new helicopter subsequently also appeared on social media.

The first GUR Black Hawk was previously owned by Ace Aeronautics, LLC in the United States, where it carried the U.S. civil registration code N60FW. It was immediately welcomed by GUR crew members, who say they appreciate its various advantages over the Mi-8 and Mi-24 series.

“Having experience operating the Mi-8 and Mi-24, we flew on the Black Hawk on the first day we received it. We just sat down and made the flight,” one pilot said, according to an earlier GUR account.

Ukraine may have very little in the way of a conventional navy, but it continues to operate smaller craft, especially on inland waterways. Here, as the following video demonstrates, they continue to be prime targets for Russian one-way attack drones. The patrol is said to have been targeted by a Russian Lancet loitering munition, while underway on the Dniepr River. The Lancet scores a direct hit on the superstructure, although the vessel continues moving and it’s not immediately clear if it was later destroyed.

In the past, we have looked at Russia’s unlikely use of the RBU-6000 naval rocket launcher in the war in Ukraine. With a shortage of more suitable weapons and a likely surplus of these naval weapons, the anti-submarine system has been adapted for land-based use, with the launcher mounted on a truck chassis. These repurposed weapons are now coming under attack by Ukrainian forces, in this case, the 93rd Mechanized Brigade. The video shows an FPV drone engaging a truck-mounted RBU-6000 as it moves down a road, apparently near Bakhmut, in the Donetsk region.

Developed in the 1950s, the RBU-6000 has a 12-tube launcher and is typically used to propel unguided rocket-powered depth charges. While it remains unclear what kind of payload is launched in its land-based modification, the basic depth charge carries a high-explosive warhead weighing around 50 pounds. 

The next video shows a particularly precise FPV drone attack, this time on Russian troops using a basement as a makeshift bunker.

We have frequently seen FPVs strike home against vehicles with unerring accuracy, bringing destruction to even heavily armored types. A good example of this is provided in the next video, documenting a Ukrainian drone knocking out a Russian BTR-82AT, one of the latest examples of the 8×8 wheeled armored personnel carrier family. In this case, the extensive array of anti-drone screens and “cope cages” had little effect.

Cope cages also failed to defend the Russian vehicles targeted in the next video, in this case by the Ukrainian 79th Air Assault Brigade. Purportedly on the Novomykhailivka front, the vehicles in question had already been abandoned by their operators.

Such is the proliferation of FPV drones by both sides in the conflict that there are now predictions from Ukrainian military bloggers that, within a year these will be as numerous as the troops on the battlefield.

In his blog, Ukrainian Sergyi Flash claims: “Mark my words — in six months to a year, both sides will begin to produce enough FPVs to target every single soldier — all will be detected and destroyed day and night in a zone of up to 5-8 kilometers [3-5 miles]. All infantry will retreat underground, and all surface activity will belong to ground robots.”

While it may be hyperbole, it does at least reflect the general direction in which the drone war is going.

In other FPV-related news, one of the more basic forms of this popular weapon is seen in the tweet below. Apparently consisting of little more than a plywood frame supporting the wings and a twin-boom tail configuration, the drone seems to be powered by a hobbyist-type motor and carries the warhead from an RPG-series rocket-propelled grenade as its warhead.

As the next video indicates, other Ukrainian drones are carrying much heavier explosive charges, capable, in some instances, of destroying entire small buildings. The caption notes that, unsurprisingly, such powerful drones are significantly more expensive than their lighter counterparts.

The results of a Ukrainian FPV strike on three Russian soldiers, caught out in the open, are seen next. Viewer discretion is advised.

At the larger end of the Ukrainian drone scale are the versions of Soviet-era jet-powered reconnaissance drones adapted for long-range one-way attack missions. The Tu-143, originally fielded as a reconnaissance drone, has been used in the past for striking targets in Russia, but it has not been seen in action for a while. This example, apparently brought down in the Bryansk region of Russia, appears to have been involved in the recent wave of attacks against infrastructure within Russian borders.

The German arms manufacturer Rheinmetall has announced plans to set up at least four factories in Ukraine.

The company said the factories would produce artillery shells, military vehicles, propellants, and anti-aircraft weapons.

Rheinmetall has previously announced an agreement with a Ukrainian company in February to manufacture 155mm artillery shells in Ukraine.

One remarkable aspect of the war has been the re-emergence of World War One-style weapons and tactics, primarily driven by the conditions encountered in the fierce trench warfare that has proliferated on the eastern and southern front lines. The innovation seen below is a tripod mounting for an assault rifle, with a periscope fitted for aiming. In this way, the operator can fire from a lowered position, such as within a trench. The tripod is telescopic, allowing the weapon to be reloaded undercover. The status of the gun mounting is unclear, but it would hardly be a surprise for it to appear in combat at some point.

More evidence emerges of advanced Western-supplied armored vehicles having been knocked out on the battlefield. These three videos show what was left of two U.S.-supplied M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles and a German-made Leopard 2A6 tank after they were used in combat, reportedly near Avdiivka in the Donetsk region.

Wreckage of Russian Iskander-M short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) reveals some interesting details. The example below, reportedly recovered in the Chernihiv region in northern Ukraine, is fitted with satellite navigation receivers associated with the Kometa system. As The War Zone has explained in the past:

The first antenna of the Kometa family for satellite navigation receivers was developed by the VNIIRT Progress company in Moscow 16 years ago; at that time, the device weighed 88 pounds. Gradually, the device’s performance increased, and the weight decreased. The Kometa antenna is used for receiving GPS/GLONASS signals even under conditions of heavy countermeasures. It has four elements, thanks to which it can separate the interference signal and ‘cut it off.’ According to the manufacturer, the antennas in this series increase resistance to interference by 40-50 decibels, which corresponds to a reduction in the range of interference imposed by the enemy by a factor of 100-300, i.e. up to several hundred yards.

The Kometa is also used to aid the navigational accuracy of Russian-operated Shahed-type drones, smaller Orlan-10 and Orlan-30 reconnaissance drones, and guided glide bombs.

The Iskander-M appears to have introduced the Kometa in place of the previously installed penetration aids, or PENAIDs, a type of decoy that you can read more about here.

Returning to glide bombs, Ukrainian Deputy Minister of Defense Lt. Gen. Ivan Havryliuk claims that Russia has dropped more than 3,500 examples of the UMPK precision-guided glide bombs so far this year. As we recently reported, Russia also appears to be now using a more sophisticated precision-guided glide bomb, the UMPB, which some have posited is akin to a Russian version of the GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb.

Two different methods that Ukraine is using to deliver mines, next, both of them involving drones.

In the first example, anti-personnel mines, similar to the U.S.-made M18A1 Claymore, are being adapted as a payload for FPV drones, for use against Russian infantry. The area effect of these weapons is much greater than achieved with a standard RPG-type warhead.

The next method involves an uncrewed ground vehicle, a small robotic carrier that deploys mines as it moves, thanks to a simple cable onto which the charges are attached.

That’s it till our next update.

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Thomas Newdick

Staff Writer

Thomas is a defense writer and editor with over 20 years of experience covering military aerospace topics and conflicts. He’s written a number of books, edited many more, and has contributed to many of the world’s leading aviation publications. Before joining The War Zone in 2020, he was the editor of AirForces Monthly.