Adrian Olivier,

Sunday 21 May – Sunday 28 May:

The largest battle in Europe since the Second World War came to a close on Sunday with Russian mercenaries of the Wagner Group finally clearing the last Ukrainian resistance from Bakhmut. Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Russian Defence Ministry claimed that the battle was over on Saturday, but the conquest was only completed on Sunday when the last Ukrainian pocket in the southwest was cleared. The battle lasted just short of 10 months – the longest single battle of the war so far – and claimed tens of thousands of lives. While they have lost Bakhmut, Ukrainian forces have continued their attempts at counter-attacks on Bakhmut’s flanks in an attempt to encircle the city. On Thursday, Wagner troops began their withdrawal from the city – their role being to take it and not hold it – which Prighozin has promised in full by June 1. Ukraine confirmed that Wagner had begun its withdrawal and was being replaced by units of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) People’s Militia. 

On Monday armed groups from Ukraine carried out a cross-border raid into the Belgorod Oblast of Russia.Two pro-Ukrainian Russian rebel groups allied with – and based – in Ukraine claimed to have taken control of several border settlements and fought with Russian government forces. These groups, the Freedom of Russia Legion (LSR) and the Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC) are made up of Russian nationals who oppose the regime of Vladimir Putin. RVC has been described as a Neo-nazi organisation – a gift for Russian propagandists who have branded Ukraine a Neo-nazi state. This is the second raid by the opposition militias into Russia, following one into Bryansk – also launched by the RVC – in March. Drone attacks from Ukraine into Russia are also reported to be continuing. The New York Times has reportedly published pictures indicating that U.S. armored vehicles were used in the attack, and this has been confirmed by Denis Nikitin, the commander of the RVC. Nikitin previously stated that his group has operated “directly under Kyiv’s command,” and that the attack on Bryansk was approved by Ukrainian authorities. Ukraine has publicly disavowed any connection to the Russian partisan fighters Kyiv, but a Ukrainian official has acknowledged in private that “co-operation” occurred. The Pentagon has issued a statement saying “we can confirm the U.S. government has not approved any third-party transfers of equipment to paramilitary organizations outside the Ukrainian armed forces, nor has the Ukrainian government requested any such transfer.” Russian officials acknowledged the attacks by the “sabotage group” and imposed counter-terrorism measures. It is the largest cross-border attack during the war since the initial beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022.

On Tuesday, Brazil declared a state of animal health emergency for 180 days in response to its first ever detection of the highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza virus (“bird flu”) in wild birds. Brazil is the world’s biggest chicken meat exporter with US$9.7bn in sales in 2022, and has so far confirmed eight cases of the H5N1 in wild birds in the northern Brazilian states. Though Brazil’s main meat producing states are in the south, avian flu in wild birds can be transmitted to commercial flocks quite easily. This H5N1 infection in wild birds will not trigger trade bans unless there is a case of bird flu on a farm. This would result in the entire flock being killed and the possibility of trade restrictions from importing countries. Shares in Brazil-based BRF SA, the world’s biggest chicken exporter, were up 3.6% before the government announcement, but ended the day 0.5% lower.

On Thursday, Iranian state media IRNA reported that the country had successfully tested a new liquid-fueled ballistic missile.The 13-metre-long missile, called the “Khorramshahr-4 long-range strategic missile” or the “Kheibar missile” is part of the Khorramshahr family of missiles based on North Korea’s Hwasong-10 intermediate-range ballistic missile – itself based on an old Soviet submarine-launched ballistic missile called the R-27/SS-N-6. “Kheibar” is a reference to a Jewish castle overrun by Muslim warriors in the early days of Islam and Israel is within range of the missile’s warhead. It can deliver a warhead weighing 1,500 kg at a range of 2,000 km (1242 miles) and the state broadcaster claimed the missile could reach Mach 16 outside the atmosphere and Mach 8 within the atmosphere. It can reportedly adjust its trajectory outside the atmosphere and has a launch time of less than 12 minutes – from fuelling of the missile to launch. The test occurred two days after Israel’s armed forces chief raised the prospect of “action” against Tehran over its nuclear program. Since signing a nuclear agreement with world powers in 2015, Iran has test launched at least 228 ballistic missiles.

Also on Thursday, Russia signed a deal with its ally and neighbour Belarus to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenko has said the warheads are already on their way to his country. It is unclear how many weapons will be transferred, though U.S. estimates put Russia’s stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons at around 2,000 working warheads. This is a clear numerical advantage over the American numbers – the U.S. has around 200 (half of which are stationed at bases in Europe – such as Volkel Air Base in the Netherlands). In support of this, Moscow has apparently already handed over Iskander-M missiles, which can carry conventional or nuclear warheads, and some Su-25 aircraft had been converted for the possible use of nuclear weapons. This is the first foreign deployment of Russian nuclear weapons since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Russian Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu said that “The collective West is essentially waging an undeclared war against our countries,” in a meeting with his Belarusian counterpart in Minsk, Belarus. Tactical nuclear weapons are used for tactical gains on the battlefield, and are usually smaller in yield than the strategic nuclear weapons designed to destroy entire cities. 

On Saturday the White House and House Republicans announced they had reached an agreement in principle on a deal to raise the debt ceiling for two years and cap spending. The United States Treasury is set to default on June 5 and so an agreement must be made before this date. It has been a familiar refrain in the news of late that “the U.S. has never defaulted on its debt”. This is a strange lie as the U.S. has defaulted four times before:

  • In 1862 the Treasury defaulted on its demand notes during the Civil War 
  • In 1933 the Treasury redeemed gold bonds with paper money instead of gold coins
  • In 1968 the Treasury refused to honour certificates with an exchange of silver dollars
  • In 1971 the U.S. abandoned the Bretton Woods Agreement, which included a commitment to redeem dollars held by foreign governments for gold. 

Perhaps it is a lie meant to instil confidence in the American government. Nevertheless, defaulting on its debt would cause an uproar in financial markets and trigger a global recession with millions losing their jobs. The deal raises the debt ceiling enough to fund the U.S. Government until after the 2024 elections – at which point the political fight will resume – and caps all non-defence spending at current levels until 2024. In 2025, non-defence spending will be increased 1%. Both Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy must convince their respective parties to agree to the deal. McCarthy told reporters on Saturday evening that he expects the House to vote Wednesday on the agreement reached with the White House.

On Sunday it was reported that overnight, the Russian Federation launched 54 Iranian-made Shahed drones towards Kiev in what is the largest drone attack of the war. Ukraine claimed that its air defence shot down 52 of the drones. The attack comes as Ukraine’s capital marks Kiev Day on Sunday, the anniversary of its official founding 1,541 years ago. In turn, Ukraine has been launching strikes against targets in Russian-occupied Ukraine. These “shaping attacks’“ prepare the battlefield for Ukraine’s impending counterattack, which has been delayed by unseasonal weather and a lack of equipment. In Ukraine, the mud season, known as “rasputitsa,” renders fields and unpaved roads impassable for around a month in the fall and spring, due to rain and melting snow respectively. Tanks, troop carriers and artillery pieces all become mired down in the soggy earth. Ukraine’s top general recently hinted the campaign could come soon, saying in a video “the time has come to take back what is ours.”

Also on Sunday, polls opened in the second round of Turkey’s presidential elections. Once again incumbent President Erdogan goes head-to-head with opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu. Both leaders cast their votes for the cameras and gave statements praising democracy. Kilicdaroglu raised doubts about the integrity of the election, urging his supporters to “go vote and to stand by the ballot boxes after. Because [the] election was held under hardships, all sorts of black propaganda and slander was used but I trust in the common sense of the people.” Electoral authorities, however, said there were no issues and that election results would come sooner than in the first round. Last week, in a boost to Erdogan’s chances, third-place candidate Sinan Ogan ( who won 5% of the first-round vote) publicly endorsed Erdogan. The opposition has described the election as a last stand for Turkish democracy, accusing Erdogan of hollowing out the country’s democratic institutions during his 20-year rule, eroding the power of the judiciary and repressing dissent.

In the week ahead:

The debt ceiling negotiations will dominate the news cycle.