Moves come ahead of a planned Ukrainian counteroffensive

By Matthew Luxmoore

May 31, 2023

The Wall Street Journal


KYIV, Ukraine—Drones struck two oil refineries in southern Russia on Wednesday as Western officials said Moscow was moving to shore up defenses in border areas and along the 900-mile front with Ukraine ahead of a planned counteroffensive by Kyiv.

Authorities in Russia’s Krasnodar region said the Ilyinsky oil refinery was largely unaffected by a suspected drone attack, but a blaze at the Afipsky refinery engulfed over 1,000 square feet of territory likely as a result of a drone, according to regional governor Veniamin Kondratyev, who said no one had been injured.

The frequency of drone attacks on Russian infrastructure and military targets far beyond the front line has increased. Moscow has mostly blamed Ukraine, and military analysts have described the assaults as part of what are called shaping operations, setting the stage for a wider counteroffensive by Kyiv’s forces.

The government in Kyiv has denied direct involvement in any such operations.

On Tuesday, a wave of drones struck residential buildings in Moscow for the first time since the war in Ukraine began, with several downed in a neighborhood near one of President Vladimir Putin’s residences.

Afterward, Putin praised the Russian capital’s air defenses, though he added that there was room for improvement. Ukrainian officials denied involvement in the strikes but predicted more of them.

Western officials say such attacks come as Russia loses the initiative in the conflict, with Moscow increasingly reacting to Ukrainian offensives that are setting the agenda on the battlefield.

Russia has in recent weeks sought to bolster defensive lines across the front in Ukraine’s east and south as Kyiv says it is completing preparations for its offensive, which is expected to involve several brigades with soldiers trained in the West and using modern equipment supplied by Ukraine’s allies.

As Moscow struggles to consolidate control over Bakhmut, the eastern Ukrainian city it captured earlier this month in its first significant victory since last summer, Russia has also been launching almost nightly drone and missile attacks against Ukrainian cities to deplete Kyiv’s air defenses and weaken its capacity to defend its citizens.

But Western officials say the campaign has been unsuccessful.

The U.S. Wednesday announced another $300 million in military aid to Ukraine, including Patriot munitions and other air defense equipment, more artillery and tank shells and other equipment including mine clearing systems. The U.S. has committed $18.7 billion in military equipment to Kyiv from existing stocks and ordered almost $6 billion in new supplies. In total, the U.S. has provided Ukraine more than $37.6 billion in security assistance since Russia’s invasion.

Western officials say Russia’s military resources are being used to shore up border areas in Belgorod, Bryansk and other regions that have been targeted by drone attacks and an incursion by Ukrainian-backed troops earlier this month.

“Since the start of May 2023, Russia has increasingly ceded the initiative in the conflict and is reacting to Ukrainian action rather than actively progressing toward its own war aims,” the U.K.’s Defense Ministry said on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, in a video address on Tuesday night, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukraine was pushing for extra support for its own air defenses from its Western allies. He said he had spoken with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Tuesday about the need for more assistance.

Zelensky cited “common decisions” that were being reached ahead of coming international gatherings, after Ukrainian officials and European diplomats said Kyiv and its allies were planning a summit of global leaders that would exclude Russia and be aimed at garnering support for Kyiv’s terms for ending the war.

President Biden and other top leaders from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would be invited for the meeting, which Western diplomats hope can take place shortly before the alliance’s annual summit that starts July 11. That gathering in Vilnius, Lithuania, will focus on military support for Ukraine and Kyiv’s future relationship with the organization.

Germany’s Foreign Ministry on Wednesday said it would shut down four of the five Russian consulates in Germany, following a decision by Moscow to limit the number of German diplomats and civil servants in Russia.

Berlin said Moscow would be allowed to continue operating its embassy in the German capital and one consulate to create parity between the two countries in terms of personnel and structures.


Georgi Kantchev contributed to this article.

Write to Matthew Luxmoore at matthew.luxmoore@wsj.com