Mark and I both predicted Prigozhin would hightail it out of Bakhmut the second he could declare victory, and that’s what he says he’s doing right here. Conveniently, he takes credit for the “victory,” and Russia’s armed forces can take the blame when Ukraine inevitably liberates it.
Indeed, Prigozhin declared victory and announced the withdrawal of his troops for redeployment to other worldwide hotspots like Sudan in Africa.
No one in Sudan or anywhere else deserves their brand of misery, but at least for Ukraine, Russia may be losing the only combat group capable of aggressively capturing territory (even if it was just 25 kms in the past year).
Joe Biden opens up door to providing F-16s to Ukraine, though details are scant.
So far, however, the U.S. has provided no details and said decisions on when, how many, and who will supply the F-16s will be made in the months ahead while the training is underway. Details on the training are equally elusive.
Meanwhile, the last Ukrainian troops may have finally left Bakhmut as Wagner Group CEO and founder Yevgeny Prigozhin declares victory. Relegated to a last few city blocks, the might of Russian artillery has been concentrated on that sector, lending its defense likely far more costly than its worth.
On Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy dropped in on the Arab Submit in Saudi Arabia, then he travelled to Japan to visit with world leaders at the G7. Totally non-coincidentally, Zelenskyy’s latest visit comes just as the United States signed onto a plan to train Ukrainian pilots in flying the F-16 Fighting Falcon; a plan that would not exist if it wasn’t a precursor to providing Ukraine with some of the fighter jets.
When Zelenskyy came to Washington D.C. just before Christmas, it was the first time he had left the borders of Ukraine since Russian tanks rolled into that nation on Feb. 24, 2022. Since then, Zelenskyy has made several other trips abroad, that includes a whole string of visits earlier this month that saw him sitting down with the leaders of Finland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. He also stopped off to visit with the Pope in Vatican City.
With the Ukrainian counteroffensive pending, and Russia experiencing both losses on the battlefield and chaos in its military leadership, there is only one thing that can stand in the way of moving this war in a positive direction: a decline of Western support. Zelenskyy knows that he needs to keep the pipeline for equipment, ammunition, and fiscal support open. Right now, that’s his most important task. He’s not needed on the front lines. His generals can plan the tactical moves. The job at hand for the Ukrainian president is reminding other world leaders that they have an enormous stake in the outcome of events, and their actions are critical to securing a Ukrainian victory.
But as Zelenskyy travels across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia to cement his nation’s relationship with the rest of the world, one part of that world is conspicuously absent. Russia, and authoritarian leader Vladimir Putin, are nowhere to be found.
When the Arab League met last year, Putin delivered an address saying that “Moscow was ready to strengthen its ties” with League members. There appears to be no such address in the works this year.
In 2020, Donald Trump put out an invite for Putin to rejoin the G7 after being kicked out in 2014 following the invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. That didn’t happen, as other G7 leaders disagreed. Still, Trump worked the refs for Putin with plans to get him back in 2021. That didn’t happen either. Zelenskyy’s presence in Japan seems to underscore just how how much of a pariah Putin has made of his nation.
It’s not just that the invitations have stopped coming. It’s been a year of convoluted flight paths and cancelled trips by Russian officials after they were denied passage through the airspace of nation after nation. That makes Zelenskyy’s path to Japan particularly interesting.
That route is only underscores that the G7 and the Arab League aren’t the only big international meetings underway. The real shocker may be what’s happening right now in Xi’an, China. That’s where Chinese dictator Xi Jinping is leading a new Central Asia Summit. As Reuters reports, that summit includes leaders from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan—all members of the Russian-led “Commonwealth of Independent States,” through which Putin has sought to hold sway over states that were formerly under control of the Soviet Union.
But even if Russia’s most important Asian partners are present at the meeting in China, Russia very pointedly is not. Instead, these CIS members are hearing Xi, not Putin, as he “unveiled a grand plan for Central Asia's development, from building infrastructure to boosting trade, taking on a new leadership role in a region that has traditionally been a Russian sphere of influence.”
There could not be a bigger sign of Russia’s weakness if you harnessed all the neon in the world. This is a huge, direct slap in the face from a country that Russia was just recently courting as a source of new weapons. Putin lost big on that front as well, and his going hat in hand to Xi may have been part of what made it clear this was the best possible time to make a grab for Russia’s nominal allies.
Turkish President Recep Erdoğan leaving Putin to cool his heels in advance of a 2022 meeting, might have been a very visible snub. But what’s happening now in China is serious. It’s the kind of thing where, in the past, Russia might decide to announce a few “joint exercises” and send a few tanks along the streets of Tashkent or Ashgabat as a not-so-subtle reminder of who was the senior partner in this relationship. Except now, with 97% of the Russian military in Ukraine and only a single tank to spare for Moscow’s Victory Day parade, that’s not going to happen.
Putin is no longer a kite to which any of these leaders want to attach their string. If they do connect with Xi, that’s certainly concerning in the not so distant future, but for right now, the signal of weakness in Moscow can’t be missed.
Meanwhile, in Japan, NBC News reported Friday on the growing agreement to train Ukrainian pilots on the F-16. It’s still unclear exactly who will provide the jets, but there is one idea that’s likely to be revived from the “should we give Western tanks to Ukraine?” period that came before the U.K. broke the ice and announced it was sending Challenger 2 tanks back in January.
At a meeting in Finland at the start of the year, Ukraine’s deputy minister of defense suggested the idea of a “tank pool” to which European countries could assign their Leopard 2 tanks. That way the pool could then provide tanks to Ukraine without any one country being the first to cross that self-imposed line. When the U.K. announced the Challenger donation, that pool no longer seemed as necessary, and over the next week centered around another meeting in Ramstein, Germany, country after country pledged some of their tank fleet to Ukraine.
It turned out to not be necessary for tanks, but it might be a good way for all the nations that have now announced their willingness to train Ukrainian forces on the F-16 to deal with supplying the fighter jets. Not that it’s really necessary. The U.S. has almost 800 of the planes up and flying. However, the latest wording from Biden still seems to indicate that, while the U.S. is willing to allow other nations that are flying F-16s to pass them on to Ukraine, it’s uncertain about sending them directly.
Among the nations that have announced either support for training Ukrainian pilots, or that they might be willing to donate planes, Belgium, Denmark, and Norway have an estimated 125. The Netherlands has 24, and has expressed interest in sharing. Poland has another 48, but doesn’t seem to be anxious to hand them over until the first of its new F-35 fleet begins to arrive next year.
It’s unclear how many F-16s Zelenskyy would like to fly back to Kyiv, but right now the estimated number of fighter planes in the Ukrainian Air Force is around a hundred. Half of those are MiG-29s, about a quarter the Su-27. It would almost certainly be from this pool of pilots where Ukraine would look for F-16 trainees.
Even if the U.S. doesn’t contribute to a pool of F-16s, maybe it can pick up the tab. In 2020, Lockheed Martin nailed down a contract to build 66 new F-16V for Taiwan at price of $8 billion. By an astounding coincidence, the Pentagon has just discovered that it made made a $3 billion accounting error when adding up aid to Ukraine. So there’s still some cash left in what looked like an empty vault. Take about half of that, it would pay for around 15 brand new F-16s. But then, Ukraine is getting an older model, used aircraft. So … say a 20 plane squadron. That seems like a good start.
In any case, it’s a pretty good bet that Zelenskyy won’t come back from Japan empty-handed. But Putin … getting what’s left of the Russian military out of Ukraine while it’s still there to retrieve looks like the only smart move. Putin never makes the smart move.
Russia’s actions around Bakhmut suggest … something
In the last week, as Ukrainian forces have made significant advances on the flanks of Bakhmut, and Wagner has continued to peck away at blocks within the city, Russia seems to be developing some kind of plan for what comes next.
Part of that plan appears to have come in the form of blowing up bridges near Ivanivske and Chasiv Yar. That could suggest a future defensive line that Russia intends to reach, but it really looks more like an effort to limit Ukrainian supplies coming into western Bakhmut.
Then on Friday, there was this…
Mining the roads around Soledar sure looks like Russia is preparing to defend an area that’s less than what they currently hold. Soledar was captured back at the end of 2022, So retreating to that point now would mean handing back five months of territory won at enormous cost in men and materiel.
But Soledar may not be the actual line of retreat. The same thread that reported this information suggests that Russia might “fall back all the way to the defensive positions built a few months ago west of Popasna.” Popasna, as you might recall from a string of articles written over a year ago, is where the line was when the invasion began. A fall back to there wouldn’t just be a retreat from Bakhmut, it would be a retreat from almost everything Russia has managed to occupy to this point.
Why Popasna is way over … wait. It’s just 25 km down the road. In the last year, Russia has come just 25 km. That’s only about 13,000 Wagner mercenaries laid end to end. You could pretty much pave a highway with Wagnerites who have fallen taking that distance.
On Friday, the Ukrainian military gave what seems like a high end estimate for Russian losses at Bakhmut. But then, you never know.
Also on Friday, Wagner once again set fire to the rubble, turning what remains of Bakhmut into a hellscape of flames and broken stone.
Even as Ukrainian forces reportedly advanced again in several areas on the city’s flanks, the few remaining forces within Bakhmut appear to be restricted to a handful of blocks that are under both heavy artillery bombardment and incendiary attack. This may be the last time for this image.
This portion of the bloodiest engagement of the 21st century is nearly complete. But the story of Bakhmut is only about to enter another chapter.
Russian airbase at Mariupol struck
Multiple videos on Friday show several large explosions at an airport near the occupied city of Mariupol. Speculation immediately turned to the recently announced Storm Shadow cruise missiles, but the multiple strikes—and the distance at around 80 km from the lines at Vuhledar—make it possible that this could have been done with either GLSDB or HIMARS.
A large group of Russian helicopters was known to have recently been relocated to this area.