The eighteenth week of Russia’s war in Ukraine saw momentous geopolitical developments, compared with marginal Russian gains on the ground.
The European Union formally bestowed candidate status on Ukraine and Moldova on June 23. They had both applied within a week of Russia’s attack on Ukraine in February.
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The speed of the EU’s acceptance is without precedent.
NATO expanded to include Finland and Sweden on June 29. Both countries applied in May.
Once again, the speed of acceptance was unprecedented.
NATO also announced it will expand its readiness forces from 40,000 to “well over” 300,000 soldiers, and with more pre-positioned equipment and stockpiles, more forward-deployed air defence, and new defence planning.
It is clear that while Ukraine is not being invited into NATO, it is coming firmly under the alliance’s security umbrella.
“Over the longer term, we will help Ukraine transition from Soviet-era equipment, to modern NATO equipment,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.
NATO expansion is precisely the reason Russian President Vladimir Putin cited for invading Ukraine.
On June 27, the world’s seven wealthiest nations, the G7, issued their most strident support for Ukraine yet, calling on Russia to withdraw to “internationally recognised boundaries”, in other words, to abandon its 2014 annexations of Crimea and Donbas, in addition to withdrawing from the parts of Ukraine it has taken this year.
The G7’s call bolsters Ukraine’s maximalist territorial ambitions, which not all of its allies support.
On June 28, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) condemned a missile attack on a shopping mall that killed at least 18 in Kremenchuk.
The moment was historic because Russia and China normally block UNSC Resolutions against Russia.
On this occasion, Albania, France, Ireland, Norway, the United Kingdom, the United States and Ukraine issued a statement on behalf of the UNSC’s most senior instrument.
On the other side of an increasingly gaping geopolitical divide, China issued its strongest support for Russia to date, when Chinese President Xi Jinping blasted US-led sanctions against Moscow.
Nations need to “reject the Cold War mentality and bloc confrontation, oppose unilateral sanctions and abuse of sanctions, and reject the small circles built around hegemonism”, Xi was quoted as saying by the Chinese state news agency Xinhua.
Putin, too, criticised sanctions as being responsible for the risk of hunger in the world, saying they prevented Russian sales of fertiliser.
Sluggish Russian advances
Western geopolitical gains took place against a Russian conquest of Severodonetsk town on June 24. Russia was also in the process of fighting through Lysychansk, the last city under Ukrainian control in the eastern Luhansk province.
Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai said Severodonetsk would be abandoned, presumably to prevent the surrender of the fighting force there, as happened at the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol in May.
“Unfortunately, we will have to withdraw our servicemen from Severodonetsk, because it makes no sense to be in broken positions – the number of dead is growing,” Haidai said.
The withdrawal was set to last a few days but seems to have been completed quickly, as two days later, the Russian Telegram channel Rybar said Russia had control of Severodonetsk and of the key logistics avenue to it, the Bakhmut-Lysychansk highway.
Ukrainian forces also seem to have tactically retreated from Pryvillia and Bilohorivka.
Of concern to departing defenders was an encroaching Russian encirclement of neighbouring Lysychansk. Russian forces avoided tackling its forbidding eastern heights, and chose instead a slow southern encirclement. By the end of the week, they had overpowered several settlements and come within 10km (6 miles) of Bakhmut, the next major urban centre likely to be hotly contested.
“It’s been incredibly slow progress because they shifted gear in April,” says Samir Puri, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, who was in the Donbas during its secession from Ukraine in 2014.
“[The Russians] have barely captured Luhansk, and Donetsk is 50 percent under Ukrainian control. I wouldn’t expect Russian progress until August. The Ukrainians have been dug in for seven-eight years and have multiple lines of defence because they always expected a frontal line of assault. What that means is slow Russian progress – not a given – and the Ukrainian capacity for counteroffensive,” Puri told Al Jazeera.
Ukraine has shown the ability to mount limited counteroffensives in recent weeks, recapturing the city of Kharkiv and its environs, and pushing Russian forces back several kilometres towards Kherson in the south.
In week 18, Ukraine bombarded Snake Island so badly that Russia announced it was withdrawing its garrison there. Snake Island is a strategic location 80 nautical miles (148km) southwest of Odesa that has been key to Russia’s blockade of the port.
But it remains to be seen whether Ukraine can bring forward a game-changing counteroffensive that meets its territorial ambitions to liberate all the lands Russia took in 2014 as well as this year.
“There’s an enormous journey for Ukraine to traverse to get to the point of contention there. The Russians can bombard Ukrainian forces from Russia with a range of weapons without even invading,” Puri said.
Ukraine’s head of military intelligence has warned that big changes are coming.
Kirill Budanov said “certain events” will take place beginning in August that will mark a turning point in the war.
“Ukraine will return to the borders of 1991 and we are not considering any other scenarios. By the end of the year, active hostilities will drop to almost zero. We will regain control over our territories in the foreseeable future,” Budanov said.
Military experts have pointed out to Al Jazeera that a plethora of heavy weaponry supplied to Ukraine by the Western alliance would take months to fully bring online. Some systems have entered the field, including French Caesar and US-made M777 howitzers, but not in critical enough numbers to turn the tide of war against Russia. It is thought that Ukraine is training a new wave of troops on many of these systems to mount a surge over the summer.
“The Ukrainians at the moment seem to be winding themselves back like a spring, waiting for NATO weapons and preparing a counteroffensive,” Puri said.
“There have been counteroffensives but we’ll see a bigger one in the summer if Ukrainian rhetoric is to be believed.”
A marked change in tactics this week was Russia’s use of offensive air power from Belarusian soil.
On June 25, 62 Russian missiles hit cities in northern, western, central and southern Ukraine far from the front lines, and for the first time activating Iskander missile batteries on the territory of Belarus, as well as firing X-22 missiles from Tu-22M3 aircraft operating in Belarusian airspace.
In the south, Russia fired Onyx missiles and Black Sea-based Kaliber missiles.
Ukraine managed to shoot down an unspecified proportion of these missiles, a notoriously difficult task, but it could not avert tragedy on June 27 when two, 500kg missiles struck a shopping mall in Kremenchuk, a city on the Dnieper River in central Ukraine, far from any military front line.
The missiles destroyed the mall, trapping hundreds of civilians inside the burning building and killing at least 18. Putin denied he was responsible, but Ukraine says the missiles were fired from Russian Tupolev-22 aircraft operating in Belarusian airspace.
“Only totally insane terrorists, who should have no place on Earth, can strike missiles at civilian objects. And these are not off-target missile strikes at kindergartens, schools, shopping malls, apartment buildings, these are calculated strikes of the invaders. Russia must be recognised as a state sponsor of terrorism,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told the UNSC two days later.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko does not appear enthusiastic about the war. He told The Associated Press news agency that the conflict was “dragging on” back in early May. Yet, Lukashenko owes his presidency to Putin, who stepped in to shore up his authority last year when nationwide protests threatened to unseat him following his sixth alleged electoral landslide.
Putin, who is already calling up reservists, may be preparing to ask Lukashenko for payback.
Deputy chief of Ukrainian military intelligence Vadym Skibitsky said between 4,000 and 6,000 Belarusian special forces personnel and air components were training with 1,500 Russians near the borders with Ukraine.
“The threat is that they may be preparing sabotage and reconnaissance groups, which may then enter our territory,” he told Ukraine’s RBC News.
Skibitsky said he does not expect Belarus to enter the war without Russian support, but he warned, “the entry of Belarus in the war means a collapse of the Lukashenko regime … This essentially means full control by the Russian Federation.”