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Ukraine Situation Report | 20 January 2023

20 January 2023

Much of the news surrounding Ukraine in recent weeks has been dominated by discussions over the West’s military support for Ukraine in the lead up to an anticipated Russian spring offensive. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has reiterated calls for Western allies to send more tanks to Ukraine, while Moscow has warned that NATO risks escalating the conflict to ‘a whole new level’ of war if it arms Ukrainian forces with heavy weaponry. Meanwhile, on the ground in Ukraine, daily shelling continues on both sides of the frontline and one of the country’s deadliest missile strikes killed at least 45 people in the city of Dnipro. A deadly helicopter crash also occurred in the suburbs of Kyiv, killing 14 people including Ukraine’s interior affairs minister - raising questions over Russian involvement as investigations get underway.

After almost 11 months of war, Russia is believed to be planning a renewed spring offensive with troop numbers bolstered by the partial mobilisation which came into effect in September 2022. As such, Kyiv has explicitly emphasised and repeated urgent calls for increased Western military support, with Zelenskyy making a direct appeal to Germany this week to send much-needed tanks to Ukraine. The appeal comes ahead of major talks involving defence officials from dozens of Western allies as representatives from more than 50 countries convene at the Ramstein air base in southern Germany. The US and European nations have already promised Ukraine more military equipment to help Ukrainian forces defend against further Russian offensives; however, Berlin has come under growing pressure to allow its Leopard 2 tanks to be sent and – as the major manufacturing country in Europe – to also clear the path for Poland and Finland to commit to sending their own German-made Leopard tanks. This pressure has mounted in the last week following the UK’s decision to send 14 Challenger 2 tanks, while Poland has indicated it is ready to take “non-standard” action if Berlin tries to block Warsaw from sending tanks to Ukraine.

Berlin has demonstrated hesitance in response to Kyiv’s appeal, claiming a decision on the tanks was conditional on the US agreeing to send Abrams tanks – something Washington is reportedly reluctant to do due to maintenance and training difficulties. Meanwhile, Russia has warned Western nations that providing tanks to Ukraine could mark an “extremely dangerous” escalation in the war. Moscow claims that any provision of heavy weapons such as battle tanks and long-range missile systems could threaten “global and pan-European security”. The statement from the Kremlin was issued on Thursday – a day before Western leaders meet at Ramstein. Elsewhere on the continent, tensions have risen in Serbia after a Russian news video purported to show Serbian volunteers training to fight alongside Russian troops in Ukraine. The recruitment video – made by Russia’s Wagner mercenary group - has prompted outrage in Serbia, where it is illegal for Serbian citizens to take part in conflicts abroad. The development has exposed discord in Serbia and Russia’s long-standing friendship, which has in the past been an obstacle to Serbian ambitions to join the EU.

On the ground in Ukraine, Russian attacks and daily shelling have continued to target Ukrainian cities, with Russian forces launching a “local offensive” near Orikhiv in southern Ukraine. Russian forces claim to have taken control of Klishchiivka in Donetsk – near the frontline town of Bakhmut – while the Kremlin has also warned that any Ukrainian attacks targeting Crimea would be met with retaliatory measures following speculation US officials may aid a Kyiv attack on the peninsula. Ukraine has confirmed its highest-profile casualty since the war began in the death of Interior Minister Denys Monastyrsky in a helicopter crash on Wednesday morning. The helicopter crashed near a kindergarten nursery in the Brovary suburb of Kyiv, killing 14 people in total, including at least one child. There is currently no official evidence that the crash was anything other than an accident and Ukraine has not explicitly claimed Russian involvement; however, Zelenskyy has commented that there are “no accidents at war time” in reference to the crash, while the Ukrainian state security service said it was considering several possible causes, including sabotage, technical malfunction, and a potential breach of flight rules. The incident came just four days after a Russian missile hit a block of flats in the central city of Dnipro killing 45 people, including six children – one of the country’s deadliest missile attacks to date. Moscow has recently issued a statement urging Kyiv to meet Russian demands, including Moscow’s claims to Ukrainian territory in the east and south of the country, if it hopes to see an end to the war. Meanwhile, Zelenskyy has stated he hopes for a “strong decision” from the West on military aid.