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Ukraine war latest: Ukrainian retreat looms without US support, ATACMS are ‘the answer,’ says Zelensky

by Alexander Khrebet and The Kyiv Independent news desk March 31, 2024 10:39 PM 8 min read
Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) is fired during a joint training between the United States and South Korea on Oct. 5, 2022, at an undisclosed location. (South Korean Defense Ministry via Getty Images)
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Key developments on March 30-31:

  • Zelensky: Ukrainian retreat looms without US support, ATACMS are ‘the answer’
  • 80% of DTEK's energy capacity damaged, destroyed after Russia's March attacks
  • Putin signs decree to conscript 150,000 Russians, Ukrainians under occupation for military service
  • Navy: Russia withdraws 'most valuable' ships from occupied Crimea
  • France to send Ukraine air defense missiles, armored vehicles

Ukraine’s armed forces could soon be forced to retreat further if U.S. military aid continues to be delayed, President Volodymyr Zelensky said, as he called on Washington to provide more long-range missiles to strike airfields in occupied Crimea.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Zelensky said his military has been unable to plan counteroffensive operations as they do not know if they’ll have the weapons required to conduct one.

“If you are not taking steps forward to prepare another counteroffensive, Russia will take them,” he said, adding: “That’s what we learned in this war: If you don’t do it, Russia will do it.”

After an unsuccessful counteroffensive last year, Russian forces now hold a theater-wide initiative which Ukraine is finding increasingly difficult to contain, largely due to a lack of ammunition.

This was starkly illustrated in February when Russia took Avdiivka, forcing Ukrainian troops to retreat from the town and accelerate the building of defensive lines further back on Ukrainian territory.

“We are trying to find some way not to retreat,” Zelensky said, and added that after the fall of Avdiivka “we have stabilized the situation because of smart steps by our military.”

But he warned the wider situation is grim without further military aid.

“If there is no U.S. support, it means that we have no air defense, no Patriot missiles, no jammers for electronic warfare, no 155mm artillery rounds,” he said.

“It means we will go back, retreat, step by step, in small steps.”

As well as inching forward on the front lines, Russian forces have also escalated missile and drones attacks on Ukraine’s cities and civilian infrastructure.

In addition to facing dwindling supplies of air defense missiles, Ukraine also has a lack of long range missiles with which it could target the air bases from which Russian bomber aircraft take off.

“When Russia has missiles and we don’t, they attack by missiles: Everything — gas, energy, schools, factories, civilian buildings,” he said, adding: “ATACM-300s, that is the answer.”

ATACMS are long-range Army Tactical Missile Systems. After months of deliberation, the U.S. delivered a small number to Ukraine in October 2023, but they were an older model with a range of 165 kilometers.

Newer variations of ATACMS have a maximum range of around 300 kilometers and have so far not been provided to Ukraine.

“When Russia knows we can destroy these jets, they will not attack from Crimea,” Zelensky said.

“It’s like with the (Black Sea) fleet. We pushed them from our territorial waters. Now we will push them from the airports in Crimea.”

Zelensky stressed that political “bickering” in Washington was hobbling Ukraine’s ability to fight back.

“We can’t waste time anymore. Ukraine can’t be a political issue between the parties,” he said, adding: “If Ukraine falls, Putin will divide the world.”

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80% of DTEK's energy capacity damaged, destroyed after Russian March attacks

In March, Russian attacks damaged or completely destroyed 80% of the thermal generating capacity of Ukraine's largest private energy company DTEK, the company's Executive Director Dmytro Sakharuk said on March 30.

Moscow has recently intensified its missile and drone strikes against Ukraine's critical infrastructure, launching large-scale attacks on energy facilities across the country on March 22 and 29.

Over the past month, DTEK's facilities have been reportedly targeted at least ten times. Five of the company's six thermal power plants have been “severely damaged,” with some units almost completely destroyed and some partially destroyed, according to Sakharuk.

“(A March 29 attack) was the second-biggest attack in March. The previous one was a week ago. The consequences of these two attacks, which were very 'effective,' are the damage to many electricity generation and distribution facilities,” Sakharuk said on national television.

DTEK said that on March 29 three of its power plants were struck and seriously damaged, without disclosing where the impacted power plants were located. Russian attacks injured one of the company's worker and at least five other civilians.

Russia's March 22 strike destroyed the Zmiiv thermal power plant, which is among the largest in Kharkiv Oblast, according to the state-owned energy company Centrenergo.

Recent attacks also damaged all power units of Burshtyn thermal power plant in Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast and Ladyzhyn thermal power plant in Vinnytsia Oblast, Sakharuk said in an interview with Economic Pravda.

Among Moscow's other targets in March were Kaniv Hydroelectric Power Plant in Cherkasy Oblast, Dnister Hydroelectric Power Plant in Chernivtsi Oblast and Zaporizhzhia's Dnipro Hydroelectric Power Plant.

The Hydroelectric Power Station-2 (HPS-2), one of the two stations of the latter, is in critical condition following the attack. The dam itself suffered damage as well, but officials said that there was no risk of a breach.

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Putin signs decree to conscript 150,000 Russians, Ukrainians under occupation for military service

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on March 31 to conscript 150,000 Russians and Ukrainians under occupation as part of the regularly occurring spring conscription campaign, Russia's Defense Ministry reported.

Russia conducts two conscription campaigns per year, in spring and fall. All Russian men from 18-30 have one year of mandatory military service, although many find ways to avoid serving. The maximum age for conscripts was raised from 27 to 30 in July 2023.

By law, conscripts mobilized as part of the routine conscription campaign are not allowed to be sent abroad to fight, including in Ukraine. At the same time, the U.K.'s Defense Ministry said in March 2023 that at least hundreds have likely served in Ukraine through “administrative mix-ups” or after being coerced to sign contracts.

The last round of conscription, conducted in September 2023, saw 130,000 men being called up to serve. The campaign included the illegally annexed areas of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia oblasts.

The U.K. Defense Ministry said on March 30 that Russia is likely recruiting around 30,000 people a month to help bolster its war effort.

With the end of the rigged presidential election, Russia can likely continue to carry out mobilization more openly, said Andrii Yusov, a spokesperson for Ukraine's military intelligence.

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The Russian military has withdrawn nearly all its major ships from ports in occupied Crimea following successful Ukrainian strikes on the Black Sea Fleet, Navy Spokesperson Dmytro Pletenchuk said on air on March 30.

In recent months, Ukraine has intensified its attacks on Black Sea Fleet targets in occupied Crimea, successfully targeting several ships and forcing Russian vessels to redeploy to safer waters.

Russia has now withdrawn all its major vessels except for the rocket carrier Cyclone, Pletenchuk said.

"I mean that most of the combat units, if you take the carriers of cruise missiles, actually all relocated, except for one," he said.

Pletenchuk described the Cyclone as a "loser" that "still has not launched a single missile."

Russia began redeploying the Black Sea Fleet to Novorossiysk last year after a series of devastating Ukrainian strikes including a missile attack on its headquarters in Sevastopol on Sept. 22.

Now, "the most valuable assets are all withdrawn," according to Pletenchuk.

The Strategic Communications Center of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (StratCom) recently reported that as of early February 2024, 33% of the Black Sea Fleet’s warships had been disabled, including 24 ships and one submarine.

Russia has taken a number of steps to address the continuing threat, including replacing the commander of the Russian Navy earlier this month.

Russian forces accidentally shot down their own Su-27 fighter jet over Crimea on March 29. Ukraine's Navy attributed the mistake to "heightened combat readiness" amid increasing Russian losses.

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France to send Ukraine air defense missiles, armored vehicles

France will deliver a shipment of Aster 30 anti-aircraft missiles and hundreds of armored vehicles to Ukraine as part of a new military aid package, French Defense Minister Sebastien Lecornu said in an interview with French media on March 30.

President Volodymyr Zelensky and French President Emmanuel Macron announced on Feb. 16 that France would provide Ukraine with a new defense package that included additional air defense systems, but did not disclose the details of the package at that time.

Kyiv faces an air defense shortage that has grown increasingly urgent amid intensifying Russian strikes.

Paris will "unlock a new batch of Aster 30 missiles" for the SAMP/T MAMBA system, the French equivalent of the U.S. Patriot, in response to Ukraine's air defense shortage, Lecornu said on March 30.

"We are also developing tele-operated munitions in a very short time, to deliver them to the Ukrainians this summer," he said.

The package will also include hundreds of old but "still operational" armored vehicles.

"To hold such a large front line, the Ukrainian army needs, for example, our armored front vehicles: this is absolutely key for troop mobility," Lecornu said.

"This old equipment, still operational, will be able to directly benefit Ukraine in significant quantities. We can talk about hundreds of them for 2024 and early 2025."

The armored personnel carriers are over 40 years old. The French military's stocks will be replaced by the next-generation Griffon vehicles.

Lecornu also said the defense ministry was working with the European missile manufacturer MBDA "to accelerate the production of the Aster missile." He also said he was issuing the company an injunction to build up its ammunition supplies.

Ukraine has faced severe ammunition shortages in recent months, contributing to the loss of a key front-line city of Avdiivka in February.

Lecornu on March 26 said that the defense package would include 78 Caesar howitzers and additional artillery shells.

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