This page features the weekly news and analysis digests compiled by Russia Matters. Explore them by clicking "Read More" below the current week's highlights and subscribe using the subscribe links throughout the site, like the one below, to receive our digests via email. Past digests are available in the News Archive, which is accessible via the link on this page.

7 Things to Know

  1. In the past month, Russian forces have gained 171 square miles of Ukrainian territory, while Ukrainian forces have re-gained 1 square mile, according to the May 21, 2024, issue of the Russia-Ukraine War Report Card. In recent weeks, Russian forces have gained ground all across the frontline, with their surprise offensive in the northeastern region of Kharkiv resulting in their biggest territorial gains since late 2022, according to NYT. On May 23, commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian armed forces Oleksandr Syrskyi claimed his forces largely halted that offensive in the northeast, though the Ukrainian general staff acknowledged the next day that Russian forces had achieved “partial success” near the village of Ivanivka in the Kharkiv region.
  2. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told Reuters that the June 15-16 peace conference in Switzerland is to focus on ensuring nuclear security, the safety of shipping in the Black Sea and Azov Sea, the return of Ukrainian children from Russia to Ukraine and the exchange of all POWs. While all these issues have earlier appeared in Zelenskyy’s peace formula, the peace formula has included several other components, including the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and prosecution of Russian officials in the International Criminal Court. However, Reuters’ summary of the 57-minute interview with Zelenskyy doesn’t include these additional issues, and it remains unclear if the Ukrainian president will try to discuss them at the summit.1 Meanwhile, Zelenskyy’s main diplomatic push to secure broader global support against Russia’s invasion at the pending summit has suffered a double blow, according to Bloomberg. First, Brazil and China announced a rival initiative early on May 24, inviting other nations to support their call for an international conference involving Russia and Ukraine to discuss an end to the war. Second, it emerged that U.S. President Joe Biden would likely be a no-show at the event because it clashes with an election fundraiser in California, according to Bloomberg.
  3. Russian President Vladimir Putin is ready to halt the war in Ukraine with a negotiated ceasefire that recognizes the current battlefield lines, four Russian sources familiar with discussions in Putin's entourage told Reuters. Two of the sources said Putin was of the view that territorial gains in the war so far were enough to sell a victory to the Russian people as long as Russia cedes none of them in negotiations. In his latest public comments on the issue, Putin said in Minsk on May 24 that Russia is ready to resume peace talks with Ukraine, but they would have to be based  “on the fundamental agreements reached during negotiations in Belarus and Turkey [in 2022] and based on today’s realities on the ground,” Putin said, according to Kommersant.
  4. The Russian defense ministry has launched a multi-phase exercise near Ukraine this week meant to prepare its forces for using non-strategic nuclear weapons (NSNWs). The Russian MoD announced on May 21 that the missile units of the Ground Forces and Aerospace Force in the Southern Military District are practicing installing nuclear warheads into the Iskander and Kinzhal missiles, respectively, and their subsequent deployment to launch areas. In comments made in Minsk on May 24, Putin has repeated his recent claim that there is nothing unusual in the exercise, which involves Belarus. In addition to the obvious purpose of preparing Russian troops to use NSNWs in battle, the multi-stage exercise is also meant to signal to the West that it should refrain from escalating assistance to Ukraine, as well as to warn the U.S. and its allies that Russia may liberalize its conditions for using nuclear weapons. The Biden administration has dismissed the exercise as bluster and muscle-flexing, according to NYT.
  5. Russia “may be testing” NATO member countries on its western frontier with recent actions linked to demarcating its borders, Finnish Prime Minister Petteri Orpo said, according to Bloomberg. First, the Russian defense ministry late on May 21 laid out a plan on its website to unilaterally expand the country’s maritime borders with Lithuania and Finland, but then deleted the plan, according to FT and ISW. Then, Russian border guards removed buoys in Estonian waters of the Narva River, which demarcates the Estonian-Russian international border. Behind closed doors, Putin had told advisers he has no designs on NATO territory, reflecting his public comments on the matter, Reuters reported, citing five people who work with or have worked with Putin at a senior level.
  6. The Biden administration is considering whether to relax the ban on Ukraine using U.S.-supplied weapons to strike targets inside Russia, as well as whether to have U.S. military personnel train Ukrainian troops inside Ukraine, according to AP and NYT. In interviews granted to Western media this week, Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for lifting the ban, as well as for having Ukraine’s NATO neighbors use their air defense systems to shoot down Russian missiles fired at Ukraine.
  7. Russian law-enforcers arrested two more top Defense Ministry officials on May 23 in what appears to be a widening anti-corruption sweep at this agency, Meduza reported. That day saw ex-commander of the 58th army Maj. Gen. Ivan Popov arrested on charges of embezzling fortification materials and deputy chief of the Russian army’s General Staff Vadim Shamarin seized for alleged bribe-taking. Earlier, Russian law-enforcers arrested Deputy Defense Minister Timur Ivanov (on April 23) and head of the ministry’s Main Personnel Directorate, Lt. Gen. Yuri Kuznetsov (on May 13). Both had served for years under the command of former Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and both were nabbed for suspected bribe-taking after Putin had replaced Shoigu with Andrey Belousov. Russian government officials and sources close to the Kremlin and the Defense Ministry told The Moscow Times that they expect dozens more military officials to be arrested in what this newspaper described as  a “sweeping purge by the security services.”
Read more

5 Ideas to Explore

  1. “Modern Russian-Chinese relations represent a more advanced form of interstate interaction compared to the military-political alliances of the Cold War,” according to the “Joint Statement on Deepening Comprehensive Partnerships and Strategic Interaction” signed by Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping during their talks on May 16 in Beijing. Speaking one day after visiting China alongside Putin, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov acknowledged the existence of a discussion among members of Russia’s relatively influential Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (SVOP) on whether Moscow and Beijing could enter into a “‘real alliance’ in our time, which will meet the interests of Russia.” “We can and should have a special conversation on this topic. We are ready to debate and discuss the ideas expressed in publications and aimed at building a real alliance with the PRC,” Lavrov told the annual meeting of the Russian equivalent of the CFR in Moscow on May 18. Despite the growing strength of Russian-Chinese ties, “many in the West ... want to believe that their alliance is an aberration,” even though “never in its entire history has it [Russia] been so entwined with China,” according to Alexander Gabuev of CEIP. Disrupting “the Russian-Chinese axis today would probably require ... difficult policy shifts—on Taiwan again, or on Ukraine,” according to FT’s Gideon Rachman.
  2. Xi Jinping has felt growing unease as ties between Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un have grown more intimate, “diplomats and other officials with knowledge of the matter” claimed when interviewed by WSJ. Russia and North Korea kept Beijing in the dark about what they discussed when Putin and Kim met for a rare summit in 2023, leading Chinese diplomats to ask their Western counterparts what was agreed between the duo, according to people familiar with the matter interviewed by WSJ. Among other things, Beijing worries that Russia might help North Korea build up its nuclear capabilities, the people told WSJ.
  3. The U.S. and its allies need to follow four rules to “sustain stable and strong deterrence” vis-à-vis Russia, according to Stanford’s Rose Gottemoeller. “The first rule should be to maintain discipline about using terms such as ‘strategic defeat’ [of Russia], so as not to pander to claims that it is Washington and its allies that are posing an existential threat,” she writes in FP. “The second rule should be to sustain the effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear deterrent and the reliability of its command and control systems.” “Third, Washington should be pursuing with assurance the mutual predictability that comes from controlling and limiting nuclear weapons at the negotiating table,” according to Gottemoeller, and “[f]inally and most importantly, the United States and its allies must sustain steady progress in military assistance to Ukraine.”
  4. Russia’s summer offensive can still be blunted if “Ukraine’s allies engage now to replenish Ukrainian munitions stockpiles, help to establish a robust training pipeline and make the necessary industrial investments,” according to Jack Watling of RUSI. Russia now has about 510,000 troops in the fight, which is sufficient to “launch attacks along the full length of the front line, keeping Ukrainian forces constantly off,” according to a RUSI analysis cited by NYT, which asks whether the current size of Ukraine’s fighting force is “enough to halt Russia’s momentum.” To turn this dynamic around, Ukraine “must not only replace losses in its existing units, but also raise enough units to manage their rotation on and off the line,” Watling wrote in RUSI.
  5. There are at least two reasons why Putin will be able to maintain war spending for a relatively long time, even if that “results in stagnating or falling real incomes,” according to Sergey Vakulenko of CEIP. “Firstly, standards of living would still remain relatively high: certainly, they have a long way to fall until they reach what they were in the Soviet period, not to mention the destitution of the early 1990s,” he writes in CEIP. “Secondly, growing repression, the embrace of an avowedly militant and nationalistic state ideology, and attacks on free speech have helped the authorities keep a lid on dissent at home,” he writes. While confident that most common Russians won’t protest a long war, Putin is also taking pains to “ward off threats from Russia's elite by elevating their offspring or their allies and letting them compete for second-tier power,” according to WSJ’s analysis of the recent cabinet reshuffle, which led to the elevation of “princelings” such as Dmitry Patrushev and Boris Kovalchuk.

NB: The next Russia Analytical Report will appear on Tuesday, May 28 due to the U.S. Memorial Day holiday.

Read more