In the war’s fifth week, Russian forces continued shelling in southern and eastern parts of Ukraine, with civilian casualties and infrastructure damage continuing. Ukraine reported some territorial gains, conducting counterattacks that pushed Russian forces back and enabled Ukrainian forces to regain control of several towns. On 29 March, Russia said it would drastically reduce military operations in Kyiv and Chernihiv. During the new round of peace talks between Ukraine and Russia in Istanbul, Russian Deputy Defence Minister stated that the withdrawal of Russian troops was meant to increase trust in the talks. Russian delegation declared the possibility of signing a peace treaty between Putin and Zelensky; however, Ukrainian officials stated that a peace treaty will only be implemented after a referendum in Ukraine. Any draw down of Russian troops around Kyiv is more likely related to necessary troop rotations, with newly rotating in soldiers deployed to the east of Ukraine. Overnight and despite comments from the Russian negotiating team, Russian military continued to bomb parts of Kyiv. On 29 March, the Pentagon Spokesperson John Kirby warned that Russia’s announcement that it was “drastically reducing hostilities” in Kyiv and Chernihiv is not a real withdrawal and said Russian leader Vladimir Putin still hopes to take all of Ukraine. “Nobody should be fooling ourselves by the Kremlin’s now recent claim that it will suddenly just reduce military attacks near Kyiv, or any reports that it is going to withdraw all its forces”.
In the north of Ukraine, Russian units with diminished capacity have withdrawn to Russia for reconstitution. In the last 24 hours, more than 30 rocket and missile attacks by Russian troops on housing estates and social infrastructure in the Kiev region were recorded.
In the east, intense fighting continued. Ukraine repelled four Russian attacks in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and destroyed seven Russian tanks, seven armoured vehicles and an anti-tank gun. According to several intelligence reports, Russia continues to reinforce its efforts in the north-eastern Ukraine to attempt linking its positions southeast of Kharkiv and Izyum with its forces in Luhansk Oblast. Ukrainian forces killed a Russian commander near Kharkiv at the same time as Russian forces continued shelling Izyum and Kharkiv. On 29 March, two missile strikes hit the Lyubotyn city.
In southern Ukraine, Russian forces are expecting reinforcements. On 29 March, the Regional State Administration building in Mykolaiv was hit by an air strike and at least 12 people have been killed during the attack. Russian forces have continued shelling in occupied parts of Kherson. In Mariupol, Russian troops continued their advances towards the city centre and fired on the field office of EU Advisory Mission to Ukraine. The office and equipment were damaged while EU High Representative Joseph Borell condemned the attack. In Odessa, air raid sirens continued to sound throughout the evening.
In the west, Ukrainian air defence systems intercepted two Russian missiles reportedly launched from Belarussian territory towards Lviv on 28 March. The missiles were shot down 30 kilometres from Lviv. Also, two Russian unmanned aerial vehicles were shot down in the region. On 29 March, air raid sirens were sounded five times in Lviv region.
NATO Developments in Eastern Europe
On 24 March, NATO leaders at the Brussels summit committed that the main focus was to strengthen the alliance’s long-term force posture in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, including through major new troop deployments in the eastern Europe. The main development was the doubling, to eight, of the number of countries in which battlegroups are based in eastern Europe. The reinforcement of NATO’s presence is a sign of growing concern about how Russia might respond against economic sanctions and increasing diplomatic tension over a month-long invasion of Ukraine.
The new battlegroups are located in Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria and Slovakia. As well, existing forces in Baltic countries and Poland are growing in size. NATO’s General Secretary, Jens Stoltenberg stated that NATO has a responsibility to ensure that the war does not escalate beyond Ukraine, and become a conflict between NATO and Russia. Poland currently holds more than a quarter of all troops under direct NATO command, with a further 120,000 troops from Poland’s own military forces.
Four European countries announced yesterday major expulsions of Russian diplomats for alleged espionage. The Netherlands announced the expulsion of 17 Russian diplomats who the Dutch Foreign Ministry said were acting as intelligence officers, while Belgium expelled 21 Russian diplomats, Ireland four, and the Czech Republic one.
US Federal Communications Commission on 25 March added Russian anti-virus software maker Kaspersky to its list of communications equipment and service providers considered a threat to US national security. Kaspersky is notably the first Russian entity on the list, which also includes Chinese companies such as Huawei. In addition, the white house has requested $10,9 billion for civilian cybersecurity activities in its fiscal plan for 2023, an increase in 11 percent from the previous year. This is likely a result of US anticipating an increase in Russian cyber hostilities targeting civilian organisations and infrastructure.
One of Ukraine’s national internet providers, Ukrtelecom, confirmed a cyberattack on its IT infrastructure on 28 March. Ukrtelecom suffered a 13 percent drop in service at the height of the attack. Ukrainian authorities stated that Ukrtelcom have limited its services to private and business customers to continue providing service to Ukraine’s Armed Forces during the cyber-attack. However, the company has successfully restored internet access. The Ukranian Government announced on 28 March that it has shut down five bot farms which produce and spread disinformation and misinformation, as well as propagating fake news in an attempt to weaken Ukrainian resistance.
On 29 March, hacking extracted confidential information, including 140,000 emails. According to intelligence reports, between up to 77 hacking groups have joined the Russia-Ukraine conflict so far.
The Interfax news agency and Reuters have reported that a meeting between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in the eastern Chinese province of Anhui has led to agreements. The two countries have decided to widen cooperation in what Moscow described as “difficult international conditions”.