Patriot battery in Poland thumbnailImage: Bundeswehr Patriot battery in Poland thumbnailImage: Bundeswehr

The Bryansk incident — A Ukrainian balancing act

In addition to the search for further Patriot fire units and an increasingly likely training mission in Ukraine, one topic in particular is currently on the agenda: Is the West going to allow Ukraine to defend itself on Russian territory with the weapons they have supplied?

After all, following the intensification of the Russian attacks on the Kharkiv region about three weeks ago, it became more and more clear that Russia, despite the full-scale invasion that has now been going on for over two years, can still easily gather its soldiers on the Ukrainian-Russian border and terrorise the entire region without much resistance.

Meanwhile, some countries — including the UK, France and the Czech Republic — have already publicly given their approval for Ukraine to defend itself on Russian territory with the weapons they have supplied, while others like Germany and the US are much less positive about this.

According to public information, in the case of Germany, Ukraine was only allowed to defend itself on Ukrainian territory with the weapon systems supplied by Germany — at least until yesterday. The fear of being drawn into the war was and still is very evident in the team around the German Chancellor and in the Chancellor himself.

Despite this, Scholz stood up in front of various press teams together with Macron at the Franco-German Ministerial Council in the Meseberg Castle yesterday and, when asked by a reporter whether he would draw a red line at the use of weapons supplied by Germany on Russian territory, announced that Ukraine would be allowed to do so as long as it acted within the framework of international law.

Scholz statement on the use of German-delivered weapons on Russian territory

A clear sign of a change in strategy! Up to now, Scholz has repeatedly emphasised that with German-delivered weapons, Ukraine may only defend itself on its own territory.

During his statement at the Meseberg Castle, Scholz made reference to two points I would like to address. Firstly, that he finds it strange that some people are discussing that Ukraine is not allowed to defend itself (on Russian territory) and that there has never been such a request by Germany.

Just very briefly on the latter point, which is definitely wrong, and I want to make that clear. Almost exactly a year ago, for example, he told the press that it is clear that “the weapons we have supplied will only be used on Ukrainian territory”.

We can therefore only guess where the change in strategy comes from. But now to the second point. Regarding the discussions, he is most likely referring to an article published yesterday by BILD that has generated a lot of discussion.

BILD writes that, according to their information, the Ukrainian army used a Patriot air defence system supplied by Germany at least once to defend itself on Russian territory. The alleged reaction is said to have been angry calls from Berlin and Washington threatening to stop deliveries if this happened again.

The incident to which BILD refers is actually not a secret one, but one that was already made public 10 months ago and which I have already reported on several times since July 2023.

The Bryansk incident

Almost exactly one year ago, on the 13th of May 2023, numerous Russian aircraft — more precisely one Su-34 and one Su-35 jets and three Mi-8 helicopters — flew over Russian territory in the Bryansk region near the Ukrainian border.

Within a very short period of time, each one of these aircraft crashed to the ground. According to initial reports, it was a case of friendly fire. A statement that is often made after such incidents and is indeed true from time to time.

However, it became relatively quickly clear that Ukraine was responsible for the downings. The interesting but unanswered question was: How was the attack carried out?

At the beginning of July 2023, around two months after the incident, the Ukrainian Air Force published a video for the Anti-Aircraft Missile Forces Day. In a few seconds of the approximately two-minute long video, a part of the first Patriot fire unit supplied by Germany can be seen.

Here one can see the markings of the Russian aircraft shot down in Russia on the 13th of May 2023. A first big hint that Ukraine was defending itself on Russian territory with an air defence system supplied by Germany at a time when Ukraine was not actually allowed to do so, while the operation had been officially confirmed by the Ukrainian Air Force spokesperson Yurii Ihnat in November 2023.

A Ukrainian balancing act between utilizing the own superior military strength to protect the country and the fulfilment of agreements made with allied countries to avoid endangering future military aid from these countries.

Interestingly, to my knowledge, this mission of the first Patriot fire unit supplied by Germany was never really covered in the German media and was generally hushed up or denied by German experts. In fact, the BILD report published very recently, without even mentioning what happened in detail, is the first report in a major German news outlet that is at least somehow referencing this as far as I can remember.

In my opinion, this has to do either with a lack of knowledge or with the fact that the debate about a possible delivery of the Taurus KEPD-350 cruise missile was in full swing at the time.

After all, it has been said over and over again that Ukraine has never abused German trust or violated any regulations.

I would like to emphasise once again that I do not disapprove the operation, that I think it is the right thing to do, and that it is completely covered by international law. Still, it’s a contradiction in terms.

Either Ukraine has violated the agreement to only defend itself on Ukrainian territory, or it has honoured the agreement. In the latter case, however, the current debates about the use of weapon systems supplied by Germany would be pointless, as Ukraine would have already been authorised to do so last year.

But admitting that Ukraine had (possibly) violated the regulations would definitely have damaged the constant reporting against the Chancellor. I even think this incident may have had a certain influence on the Chancellor’s decision to deny the delivery of the German cruise missile.

But there is another thing we have to think about. There must be a reason why, since the Bryansk incident happened over a year ago, we have not seen any serious evidence that something similar had happened again.

Downed Su-34 burning
Downed Su-34 burning on Russian territory

After all, there should hardly be any reason why the Ukrainian Air Force shouldn’t repeat an operation like that, since the Russian Air Force even avoided flying in the region for a while, after the German-supplied Patriot fire unit was used days later to take another Russian Su-35 fighter jet out of the sky. A major win for the AFU.

One simple explanation is, of course, that there were actually angry calls from Berlin and Washington. A persistent rumour, which of course I can neither refute nor prove.

In the end, we should always bear one thing in mind. If we are supplying Ukraine with such powerful and efficient weapons systems for self-defence, we should also allow Ukraine to use them in the best possible way.

And to wait for another dozen cruise missiles to be fired at a major Ukrainian city at three o’clock in the morning can hardly be the best possible operational scenario.

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