Russia Seeks to Maintain Battlefield Initiative on Eve of NATO Summit

The ever-changing battlefield dynamics of Moscow’s war against Ukraine have made it impossible for predictions to be accurately tied to the political calendar. This unpredictability is particularly acute in the lead-up to one of the most critical events of 2024 — the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Washington on July 9–11.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks in Washington in June 2022. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Recently, Russia’s war-making has included renewed efforts to increase pressure on Ukraine and thus foster discord between the transatlantic allies (see EDM, May 28, June 310). Those efforts have been centered on the offensive operation in the Kharkiv direction, which gained some ground in the first couple of weeks but has now been exhausted and started to roll back.

Combat operations have reached an unstable equilibrium, granting NATO and its partners an opportunity to recalibrate their strategy for defeating Russia’s aggression calmly and carefully (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 26).

Russian President Vladimir Putin insists that Russian forces maintain the initiative on the battlefield and will receive new weapon systems, including intermediate-range missiles, which Moscow will reportedly begin producing soon (Izvestiya, June 28).

Putin’s assertion reveals that the tactical fiasco in the Kharkiv region amounts to a strategic failure on Moscow’s part, as several key Ukraine supporters, including the United States, have granted Kyiv consent for using long-distance weapon systems to strike military targets inside Russia’s territory (see EDM, June 3; The Insider, June 24). The accuracy of these strikes depends on the supply of real-time intelligence, and Kyiv’s Western partners can assist with determining proper target coordinates. Meanwhile, Russian High Command still demands authorization for attacking the US-made RQ-4 Global Hawk and MQ-9 Reaper drones over international waters in the Black Sea, which would signify high-risk escalation (Izvestiya, June 29).

On the one hand, the near-intercept of an unarmed US drone by a Russian Su-35 fighter last week in Syria and a possible direct hit in the Black Sea theater could cast a shadow over the NATO summit (The Moscow Times, June 28; RIA Novosti, June 29). On the other hand, such an action could prompt Ukraine’s partners to focus more on coordinating joint increases in the supply of arms and munitions to Ukraine for the coming months.

A path for Ukraine’s accession to NATO

The question of charting a path for Ukraine’s accession to the alliance, which dominated the previous NATO summit in Vilnius, has begun to be resolved by a series of bilateral agreements on security commitments, including the most recent one with the European Union and the soon-to-be-signed agreement with Poland (, June 27;, June 29). These agreements represent a stepping stone to Ukraine’s eventual NATO membership, not a replacement as such (see EDM, May 1620).

The arrival of several squadrons of F-16 fighter jets combined with the increased supply of artillery shell and gradual strengthening of air defense systems could turn the tide of the war in the coming weeks. The Czech initiative to jointly purchase artillery shells from various (often undisclosed) sources has helped weaken Russian superiority in firepower, which Moscow has tried to sustain with the import of North Korean munitions (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 25). The deal to supply several batteries of MIM-104 Patriot surface-to-air systems from Israel, which Moscow still hopes to derail, has significantly boosted Ukraine’s capacity for intercepting Russian missiles (TASS, June 28). The Russia side seeks to preserve its air superiority by launching missile strikes on bases that are preparing for F-16 deployments and threatening to hit facilities in Poland and Romania. The plan, carefully prepared by the allied “F-16 coalition,” remains firmly on track (RBC, June 20).

Quality of weapon systems

The steadily increasing Ukrainian edge in the quality of weapon systems is beginning to neutralize Russia’s main advantage in trench warfare — enormous manpower reserves (Re: Russia, June 27). The available data on Russian casualties is far from precise, but cross-examination of demographic statistics with evidence collected from social media and anecdotal sources provides a reasonably accurate picture of the heavy toll the war has taken on young and middle-aged Russian men (Meduza, June 27;, June 29). In late spring and early summer of this year, casualties have been higher than the number of new soldiers from conscription and recruitment (Novaya Gazeta Europe, June 27). The Russian prison population cannot supply “volunteers” in sufficient numbers. On June 27, Russian Investigation Committee head Alexander Bastrykin reported a new campaign to pressure labor migrants from Central Asia into the ranks of Russia’s shrinking battalions (Svoboda, June 27).

The high demand for manpower has degraded the Russian economy (see EDM, June 2627). The economy is struggling to follow the incompatible guidelines on expanding military production and to maintain the pre-war standards of public consumption despite growing inflation accelerated by high budget expenditures (The Insider, June 25). Ukraine is also suffering economic desolation as Russia continues its missile strikes on energy and civilian infrastructure, seeking to maximize the disruptive effects of blackouts (, June 18). Ukraine’s ability to withstand attrition depends increasingly on external funding, including the new credit tranche of $2.2 billion provided by the International Monetary Fund (RBC, June 29).

Western solidarity

The European Union is sustaining the flow of economic aid and has taken a significant step forward in opening talks on Ukraine’s accession (Svoboda, June 25). Ursula von der Leyen, who secured a second term as European Commission president, plans to keep a firm hand on EU policymaking, and Ukraine remains a top priority (Kommersant, June 28). Moscow views the appointment of Kaja Kallas, current prime minister of Estonia, to the position of EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy as proof of the aggravated “Russophobia” in EU strategy (, June 29).

The rising trend in Western solidarity is certain to gain new momentum at the NATO summit, where the strategic goal of ensuring Russian defeat looks set to be reinforced. Moscow has no reason to expect that Mark Rutte, NATO’s new secretary-general, will show any more “understanding” of its ultimatums and deference to its “red lines” than the unwavering Jens Stoltenberg has done. Putin is loath to see Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy receive a new boost for his leadership in charting the course to bring the ugly war to a just peace. Even the Kremlin leader’s nuclear brinksmanship is unlikely to spoil this outcome.

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