Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday confirmed for the first time that tactical nuclear weapons have already been deployed to his vassal state of Belarus. That makes good a promise he made in March that he would deploy such weapons there. You can read more about that in our coverage here.
Speaking at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), Putin said the deployment was a reminder to the West that his country cannot be defeated.
"As you know we were negotiating with our ally, (Belarusian President (Alexander) Lukashenko, that we would move a part of these tactical nuclear weapons to the territory of Belarus - this has happened," said Putin, according to Reuters.
"The first nuclear warheads were delivered to the territory of Belarus. But only the first ones, the first part. But we will do this job completely by the end of the summer or by the end of the year."
The admission comes as a warning to NATO after additional military aid was pledged to Ukraine during the Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting earlier this week in Brussels, Belgium.
"...It is precisely as an element of deterrence so that all those who are thinking about inflicting a strategic defeat on us are not oblivious to this circumstance," said Putin, according to Reuters, which said the Russian leader “was using a diplomatic term for a defeat so severe that Russian power would be diminished on the world stage for decades.”
Putin added that negotiations to reduce Russia's vast nuclear arsenal, the world's largest, was off the table, Reuters reported.
"Just talking about this (the potential use of nuclear weapons) lowers the nuclear threshold. We have more than NATO countries and they want to reduce our numbers. Screw them," said Putin.
His comment came days after Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko said his country already had "rockets and bombs" from Russia "three times more powerful than the ones used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki" Japan by the U.S. during World War II.
Putin’s comments were immediately condemned by the White House on Friday.
“As we've said before, we believe this kind of nuclear rhetoric is highly irresponsible," Principal Deputy White House Press Secretary Olivia Dalton told reporters aboard Air Force One Friday. "There's just no room for it. It is highly irresponsible. And I would just reiterate, as we've also said in recent days, we've seen no indication nor reason to adjust our nuclear posture at this moment in time."
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said the Biden administration does not believe Russia is preparing to use those weapons.
"We’ll continue to monitor the situation very closely and very carefully," Blinken said at a news conference with Singapore’s foreign minister at the State Department. "We have no reason to adjust our own nuclear posture. We don’t see any indications that Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon. The President said again this week that we remain committed to the defense of NATO – every inch of its territory – so that is our north star and we’re very focused on that."
The prospect of nuclear cooperation between Moscow and Minsk first appeared last June, when Putin announced the transfer of nuclear-capable Iskander-M missiles to Belarus. In that announcement, Putin quipped that some of Belarus’ fleet of Su-25 Frogfoot attack aircraft could be upgraded to carry tactical nuclear weapons. Belarus inherited a number of tactical nuclear weapons, as well as 81 SS-25 “Sickle” road-mobile ICBMs when the union collapsed, but later returned their stockpile to Russia.
Before we head into the latest news from Ukraine, The War Zone readers can catch up on our previous rolling coverage here.
"Another [Ukrainian counteroffensive] attempt is being made at the so-called Vremevka bulge [in western Donetsk Oblast near the Mokri Yaly River] and the enemy is attempting to attack in several sectors with several units supported by five tanks and there is also an attempt in the Zaporizhzhia area with the support of two tanks and several armored vehicles," Putin said in response to questions.
"As soon as they [Ukrainian troops] approached the first line, they lost several tanks. A battle is underway there right now," Putin said.
"I believe that the Ukrainian armed forces have no chances for success there and will have no chances. The same is true about other [frontline] directions. I have no doubts."
Ukrainian troops have sustained heavy casualties, Putin said, citing what TASS said was “the latest data.”
"Indeed, their losses are very high, even more than 10 to 1 compared to the Russian army. This is fact," Putin said.
"As of today, the Ukrainian army has lost 186 tanks and 418 various armored vehicles," the Russian leader said, without giving exact figures on personnel casualties, explaining that the data should be given by the defense ministry.
"Let me repeat: the main thing is that there are no successes in any of the directions. The enemy has had no success as reported by the military," Putin said.
Ukraine, however, is claiming “partial success” in ongoing offensive and defensive operations while working on changing plans in its fight in and around Bakhmut.
“Our troops are operating in the conditions of the enemy's air and artillery superiority,” Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said Friday on her Telegram channel. “In the directions where we are on the defensive, not a single position has been lost and the enemy has not been able to advance.”
In the east, “the Defense Forces of Ukraine are conducting both defensive and counteroffensive actions,” she said. “Here, the enemy is trying to dislodge our troops from their occupied positions, is conducting assault operations in several directions at once, in particular on Lyman” in northern Donestk Oblast.
In and around Bahkmut, “the overall intensity of hostilities decreased somewhat,” said Maliar. “Our troops are carrying out offensive operations in separate areas, occupying dominant heights and forest strips with the aim of gradually displacing the enemy from the approaches to Bakhmut. The enemy is making every effort to stop the offensive actions of our defense forces.”
The Russians have “a significant number of forces, which [they] continue to build up, moving additional units from other directions to the Bakhmut direction.”
But the commander of Ukraine's Ground Forces offered a slightly different take.
Despite action across the front lines stretching from northern Donetsk to central Zaporizhzhia oblasts, the fighting in and around Bakhmut remains “tense,” said Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrskyi.
“Despite the advance of our troops in the south and the loss of territory and settlements in this direction, the enemy continues to move some of the most combat-capable units to the Bakhmut direction, combining these actions with powerful artillery fire and strikes by assault and army aircraft on the positions of our troops,” Syrskyi said, according to the Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s Telegram channel.
“At the same time, we continue to conduct offensive actions in separate directions... Realizing this, the enemy units put up a desperate resistance.”
As a result, Syrskyi said “it is clear that our plans need periodic adjustment and clarification. This is what my work in the army is now dedicated to.”
He did not offer details.
Meanwhile, on the southern portion of the front lines in Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia oblasts, “our troops are conducting active offensive actions in several directions at once,” said Maliar.
“Practically in all areas and directions where our units advance in the south, they have tactical success,” she said.
Ukrainian forces “gradually move forward. As of now, up to two kilometers in each direction. The process of consolidating our troops continues in some liberated positions and settlements.”
In the Berdiansk and Mariupol directions, “the enemy is withdrawing troops from other directions and increasing firepower. In addition, our troops face continuous mining of fields.”
The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee wants the Pentagon to spend “not less than $80 million” in the Fiscal Year 2024 budget for the procurement of Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) short-range ballistic missiles for Ukraine.
That would represent more than 10 times the $7.3 million allocated for the Lockheed-Martin made ATACMS in the U.S. Army budget plan submitted by the White House earlier this year.
In his “chairman’s mark” introduced earlier this week, U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Alabama) is directing the Pentagon to use Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI) funds to pay for the ATACMS. That’s a pool of money set aside to make future purchases, as opposed to pulling things off the shelf.
“The committee directs the Secretary of Defense to provide a briefing to the congressional defense committees, not later than December 31, 2023, on the progress of using USAI for the procurement of and availability of ATACMS to the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” the chairman’s mark reads.
The mark, however, is merely the document the chairman wants to present for further vote and it is unknown at this point whether the ATACMS line item will make it into the final National Defense Authorization Act or how much the Pentagon or White House will push back against it.
It is clearly a political statement of support to give Ukraine a much-needed weapon it has long requested to hit Russian logistics nodes and other targets deep behind the lines in occupied territory, including Crimea. ATACMS are a ground-launched short-range ballistic missile that can be fired from suitable U.S.-provided M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, and M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) launchers that are already in Ukrainian use.
So far, President Joe Biden has refused to sign off on providing Ukraine with ATACAMs - which can hit targets at about 200 miles away - over concerns about further escalate the situation with Russia. That’s despite repeated assurances from Kyiv that it won’t use US.-provided weapons on Russian soil.
However, questions were raised about that commitment after images emerged last month showing U.S. armored vehicles used in an attack inside Russia’s Belgorod Oblast by members of two self-proclaimed anti-Putin Russian partisan groups.
While those groups claim they captured the vehicles from the Russians who captured them from Ukrainian troops, both the Pentagon and White House are currently investigating that situation, each saying the weapons provided to Ukraine are only meant for use on Ukrainian soil.
Though NATO won’t discuss Ukraine joining its ranks during the upcoming summit in Vilnius, the treaty alliance is working on a plan to give Kyiv greater representation.
“We are also working to establish a new NATO-Ukraine Council,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Friday.
The council “will be a body of 31 Allies and Ukraine equal, sitting around the table with the same rights and the same possibilities to consult, and also make decisions together if we find that the right thing to do,” Stoltenberg. “And then hopefully also soon, then, 33 when Sweden becomes a member. So that's a different type of working together politically, and will bring Ukraine closer to NATO in political terms.”
The goal "is to have the first meeting of the new council in Vilnius, with President Zelensky,” Stoltenberg said. “We all agree that Ukraine has already moved closer to NATO over the past decade. We agree that NATO's door is open. That Ukraine will become a member of the Alliance. And that it is a decision for Allies and Ukraine to make. Russia does not have a veto.”
Ukraine, however, is not a big fan of the concept, preferring full membership instead.
"Ukraine's position is clear," Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Thursday in a tweet. "Creating the NATO-Ukraine Council without taking a strong step toward membership is like providing a tank without a gun. NATO needs Ukraine as an Ally, not just a privileged partner."
During a press briefing in Brussels Friday, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin deflected a question about whether the U.S. is considering offering Ukraine a so-called “Israel model” long-term security agreement.
The concept, raised earlier this week by The New York Times, would be akin to the 10-year-long security commitment Israel has with the United States.
Administration officials are pushing the idea to Congress, according to the Times. The motivation would be to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin that U.S. security assistance to Ukraine will not cease. It would also be aimed at heading off some of the episodic political debates about how much aid to commit to Ukraine in the next six months or a year.
“I won't speak to any type of security arrangement at this point in time,” Austin told reporters Friday. “What I've been focused on, what I remain focused on is making sure that we're providing Ukraine the security assistance that it needs to be successful in this fight and it's really important that we and our partners that are fighting the fight remain focused on this.”
The U.S. and Ukraine, he added, will “have a bilateral relationship with Ukraine going forward, as you would imagine. The people who will hammer out those kinds of arrangements are talking to each other. But again, my focus remains on making sure we get the right kinds of security assistance to Ukraine so they can be successful. And I think this is a really critical time point in time on the battlefield.”
German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius announced the donation Friday during the second day of the meeting of NATO heads of department in Brussels. This is "a very important sign of sustained support for the successful efforts of the Ukrainian armed forces to ensure air defense, especially now in this special phase of the war," he said, according to N-TV.
As Russia continues to bombard Ukrainian cities, especially Kyiv of late, Ukraine is burning through its stocks of Patriot interceptors. So far, Ukraine has two Patriot batteries, one from the U.S., the other a combined German-Dutch system. Another five are expected to be delivered by the end of next year, which you can read more about here.
Speaking of attacks on Kyiv, a delegation of African leaders visiting the Ukrainian capital was ushered into air raid shelters after another Russian missile and drone barrage.
Russian President Vladimir Putin “‘builds confidence’ by launching the largest missile attack on Kyiv in weeks, exactly amid the visit of African leaders to our capital,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Friday in a Tweet. “Russian missiles are a message to Africa: Russia wants more war, not peace.”
The peace delegation, made up of leaders from South Africa, Senegal, Zambia, the Comoros and Egypt, met Ukrainian Defense Ministry (MoD) representatives ahead of talks with President Volodymyr Zelensky, Reuters reported.
After meeting with Zelensky, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said that the effort was at the beginning stages and that the African nations are "prepared to participate in further engagement."
The leaders are also scheduled to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in St Petersburg on Saturday and, "with Kyiv and Moscow courting the Global South, see a chance to mediate in a war that has hit African countries by disrupting grain and other food supplies," Reuters reported.
In a “massive combined air attack on Kyiv,” Russia launched six Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missiles, six Kalibr cruise missiles and two drones at Ukraine’s capital, Serhiy Popko, head of the KMVA, said on Telegram Friday.
All were shot down, the Ukrainian Air Force claimed.
There is a claimed Ukrainian capture of another Russian antique, this time a Russian T-54 tank, a variant first seen on the battlefield back in April, which you can read more about here. The Soviet Union built the first T-54 prototype in 1945 and the first example of the T-55 was completed in 1956. Most variants of both types are extremely similar visually and today the two designs are generally considered part of a single family, as you can read more about here.
Russian Telegram channels say Putin's forces are using these old tanks as self-propelled artillery.
The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), is one of several segments of Kyiv's national security apparatus with its own drone units. You can see one of its First Person Video (FPV) drones blowing up a Russian BMP-3 Infantry Fighting Vehicle.
One of Ukraine's biggest challenges during this counteroffensive has been the large amount of Russian mines planted over the past year. Images and videos emerging from the battlefield have shown Ukrainian armor destroyed and damaged after running over mines.
To help counter that, Ukraine is using U.S.-donated M58 MICLIC (Mine Clearing Line Charge) systems, which shoot a 350-foot long line containing 5 pounds per linear foot of C-4 explosives. This video below shows several MICLIC in use at once in Zaporizhzhia Oblast. But the systems have also been used as a strike weapon, including in urban areas, to devastating effect.
And finally, for a few pleasant moments anyway, the sounds of war were replaced by the purr of a kitten on the lap of a Ukrainian soldier.
That's it for now. We'll update this story when there's more news to report about Ukraine.
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