Situation Report

A weekly digest of national security, defense, and cybersecurity news from Foreign Policy reporters Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer, formerly Security Brief. Delivered Thursday.

Russia’s War in Ukraine Enters ‘Grinding Phase’

And there could be a risk of Ukrainian attrition.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
A boy sits on the ruins of a building.
A boy sits on the ruins of a building.
A young boy sits in front of a damaged building after a strike in Kramatorsk in the eastern Ukrainian region of the Donbas on May 25. Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! Jack flying solo here today, on the final leg of U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks’s first trip abroad, resting my sore feet after a walk through London to former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s cabinet war rooms. And Robbie—a distant second in the running for FP’s biggest World War II nut—is in rainy Seattle. That ought to make him jealous.

Alright, here’s what’s on tap for the day: Russia’s war in the Donbas is becoming a grind, the U.S. Marines could elevate their first Black four-star general in more than two centuries, and China takes a victory lap in the South Pacific after inking a security deal in the Solomon Islands.

If you would like to receive Situation Report in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! Jack flying solo here today, on the final leg of U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks’s first trip abroad, resting my sore feet after a walk through London to former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s cabinet war rooms. And Robbie—a distant second in the running for FP’s biggest World War II nut—is in rainy Seattle. That ought to make him jealous.

Alright, here’s what’s on tap for the day: Russia’s war in the Donbas is becoming a grind, the U.S. Marines could elevate their first Black four-star general in more than two centuries, and China takes a victory lap in the South Pacific after inking a security deal in the Solomon Islands.

If you would like to receive Situation Report in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.


Trying to Look Beyond the Day-to-Day

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has entered a scary new phase. Even if Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military campaign to overrun the Donbas region is still behind schedule, as U.S. defense officials have stated, Russian troops have taken the Ukrainian cities of Mariupol, Popasna, and several villages in the east. Ukrainian forces have moved back in some areas. And Ukrainian civilian and military officials remain upset that the United States hasn’t given them multiple rocket launcher systems that they believe could beat back Russia’s numerical advantages.

But as Foreign Policy travels around Europe with U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, U.S. and European officials remain insistent they’re not focused on the day-to-day but trying to track the overall trajectory of the war.

“It’s a grinding phase, and there’s still a long way to go,” Gen. Tod Wolters, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Europe, told Foreign Policy on Tuesday. “We’ll probably be in a position where this grinding phase will continue for several more weeks.”

Wolters acknowledged that there is a risk of Ukrainian troops getting hollowed out amid Russia’s advances in the Donbas but that the Defense Department did not see that happening so far. Wolters said the United States remains prepared to support Ukraine to “the max[imum] extent practical.”

Hicks said the Biden administration’s latest $40 billion aid package for the war-torn country, about half of which is for providing weapons, was aimed to cover Ukraine until the end of September, depending on Ukraine’s burn rate of ammunition.

But even with the money in hand—and the United States now preparing to send out the first batch of weapons—Ukraine’s demand for speedy and reliable deliveries of weapons, especially M777 howitzers, is increasing with the Donbas war turning into a shootout.

U.S. arms deliveries to Ukraine, which have totaled nearly $4 billion since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion, are “tracked down to the dollar,” one U.S. military official said during a briefing in the fourth-floor conference room at Patch Barracks in Stuttgart, Germany, which has become the nerve center for shipping Western weapons.

Western officials are still having trouble discerning how effective those weapons have been on the battlefield though. “Once it goes over the border, sight on that goes pretty blind,” one British military official acknowledged. Although there are likely Russian attempts to target Western supplies of weapons into Ukraine, “they haven’t been successful up to this point,” Wolters said after the tour of the control room.

Even if the United States can’t meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s repeated requests for multiple rocket launchers, the new U.S. operations center in Germany for tracking weapons deliveries, which started as an effort to deconflict efforts among Western countries at the beginning of the war, could help get the Ukrainians closer to parity, officials said.

And as the war grinds on, falling off the front pages from day-to-day, U.S. and British defense officials can keep up the drumbeat of weapons deliveries to Ukraine by using the war as a chance for NATO nations to build out their own militaries, as the upcoming alliance summit in Madrid may start to push some nations past the GDP target of 2 percent for defense spending.

“There’s an acknowledgement that there’s an opportunity to support the defense industry,” said one British military official.


Let’s Get Personnel

Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby is set to leave the five-sided building on Friday for a top communications job at the National Security Council. In the interim, Politico reports that his deputy, Todd Breasseale, is preparing to take the podium while a full-time replacement is worked out.

Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Michael Langley is U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s pick to become the next head of U.S. Africa Command, the New York Times reports, which would make him the first Black four-star Marine in the service’s 223-year history. Langley currently oversees U.S. Marines on the East Coast and would replace Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, who is set to retire this summer.


On the Button 

What should be high on your radar, if it isn’t already.

Victory lap. China is not wasting time trying to press its advantage in the South Pacific after inking a security deal with the Solomon Islands last month that has unnerved U.S. and Australian officials.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi arrived in the Solomon Islands today as part of an eight-nation swing. A draft document that the Associated Press got its hands on indicates that Wang is hoping to score new deals with Pacific Island nations on everything from security to fisheries while he’s in the region, a move that could deepen China’s military foothold in the area.

Wagner stands pat. The United States says the Russian paramilitary Wagner Group’s presence remains steady in Mali despite a drawdown of forces in Libya and the Central African Republic amid ordering the mercenaries to help out in Ukraine, the top U.S. commander for Africa told Foreign Policy on Wednesday.

“Despite all their protestations that it’s a private military company that [Russia has] nothing to do with, they ordered [Wagner] about the globe and they fly them about the globe in Russian Air Force aircraft,” said Townsend, U.S. Africa Command chief. “We’ve seen them draw down in Libya and the Central African Republic but not really touch their presence, their relatively recent presence, in Mali.”

Bring the pain. Russia’s defense industry is going to feel a lot of pain from the invasion of Ukraine, U.S. officials believe. Hicks told Foreign Policy and another reporter traveling with her in Europe this week that the lack of foreign-produced microelectronics heading to Russia is likely to take a toll on production lines for advanced fighter jets, naval platforms, and precision-guided munitions that are at the heart of Putin’s military modernization drive, which is set to wrap up in 2027.


Snapshot 

A man paints a damaged light pink building.

Ukrainian painter Volodymyr Natalushko paints the heavily damaged Hotel Ukraine in Chernihiv, Ukraine, on May 25. Chernihiv, northeast of the capital, was an early target of Russia’s offensive after its Feb. 24 invasion.Alexey Furman/Getty Images


Put On Your Radar

Today: Gen. Christopher Cavoli has his confirmation hearing to be the next head of U.S. European Command and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Sunday, May 29: Colombia is set to hold its presidential election.


Quote of the Week

“They don’t want to take tea breaks. They just want to carry on learning and get back into [the] country.”

An anonymous British military official told a traveling Pentagon delegation in Europe on Tuesday that the Ukrainians at training ranges are pretty eager to get back into the fight. Foreign Policy was allowed into the briefing on condition of anonymity. 


Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Taking a bite. British sanctions against Russia have sparked a living crisis so dire in the United Kingdom that people are resorting to cannibalism. That’s according to Russian propaganda from a pro-Putin outlet that is making headlines in London. But this reporter, who’s currently holed up in Westminster, has seen no evidence of cannibals roaming the streets. However, sightings of werewolves in London are a different story.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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