But while President Biden has pledged to stand with Kiev “as long as it takes,” Ukrainian officials, Western diplomats and analysts warn that aid is simply taking too long. As both sides prepare for a spring battle that could tip the outcome of the war, Ukraine still lacks the strength and weapons to completely drive the Russian invaders from its territory.
The announcement of fighter jets was highly symbolic and was loudly applauded in Kiev, but the Soviet-era aircraft are of limited use given the nature of the war, largely a close-range artillery engagement in which neither side controls the skies.. The Abrams tanks will add big armored muscle, but won’t arrive until the fall – about six months after an expected spring Ukrainian counter-offensive.
“What is clear is that time is on Russia’s side, which means it has the soldiers and equipment to drag out a long war along a huge front,” said Rachel Rizzo, an analyst at the Europe program of the Atlantic Council. “Ukraine does not have that advantage. … If weapons are not delivered fast enough, it will be extremely difficult for Ukraine to push back against Russian gains.
Delays are not the only challenge. Despite appeals of Western support, other key items on Ukraine’s arms wish list remain unfulfilled. Kiev is asking for everything from advanced equipment such as US F-16 fighter jets and extended-range rocket artillery to base ammunition, particularly shells for the existing Soviet-era tanks and artillery pieces.
In public, Ukraine’s leaders exude confidence and express gratitude. “We expect more supplies of exactly what we need,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said this week. “And we need it now.”
Some Kiev supporters are clearly stepping forward. Britain confirmed this week that it is sending depleted uranium tank munitions to Ukraine, refuting claims by Russian President Vladimir Putin that such shells have “a nuclear component”. The heavy metal helps pierce tanks and other armor.
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Germany, which was initially hesitant to release Leopard tanks to Ukraine, is now hoping to bring together two Leopard 2 battalions – about 70 tanks in all, although repairs and checks were still needed on many of those vehicles, which were built in the late eighties and early nineties.
At the same time, there are palpable concerns that the West hesitated too long.
“The side with more resources that arrives faster has the upper hand on the battlefield,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said. “Artillery ammunition has the highest priority. … The faster we get more grenades, the more Ukrainian lives will be saved; the more effective Ukrainian defense and counter-offensive operations, the sooner Ukraine will be able to end this war and restore peace through decisive victories on the battlefield.”
Estonia’s ambassador to Ukraine, Kaimo Kuusk, said NATO countries are “more and faster… [the] the day before yesterday. But complaining will not change the past.” He added: “We must help Ukraine to change the future right now.”
The Kremlin has denounced the United States and its allies for supplying arms to Ukraine, angrily insisting they are only prolonging the conflict and delaying Russia’s inevitable victory.
Defenders of the incremental strategy say the West has done everything it can to avoid direct conflict with Russia, even though the approach has clearly cost Ukraine more casualties. The spring counter-offensive – designed to take back much of the territory occupied by Russia – could be a decisive test.
Ukraine is holding back certain soldiers from the bloodiest front lines in the east of the country, where neither side has made significant territorial gains in recent times. Those troops will form reconstituted assault brigades, and many have received training abroad on new equipment Western nations have promised Ukraine.
For example, Kiev is creating special battalions for the combat vehicles and tanks provided by Western countries, officials said. A battalion organized around US-supplied Bradleys will have about 30 of the combat vehicles.
But even already committed supplies could face further delays as supply lines and transportation hubs are overwhelmed by equipment deliveries, potentially giving Russia the upper hand.
A European diplomat expressed the hope that after the announcements from Poland and Slovakia, other supporters would also supply aircraft. “The main meaning of Polish jets: breaking a glass ceiling – showing that giving fighter jets is not a taboo and will not lead to World War III,” said the diplomat.
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But at a hearing last month, Pentagon policy chief Colin Kahl rejected suggestions that Ukraine would have more short-term success if the United States granted its requests for F-16s. The manufacture and delivery of new aircraft would take many years, he said, and even the shipment of existing aircraft would take at least 18 months, as would the training of Ukrainian personnel.
Delivering even half the number of aircraft requested, he added, would also be too expensive, and US officials have stressed that extensive air defenses on both sides have made combat aircraft of limited value to both Ukraine and Russia.
But in an interview with The Washington Post in February, Colonel General Oleksandr Syrsky, the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, said the main value of modern fighters like F-16s is their long-range strike capability. Russian forces have adapted to Ukraine’s use of the US-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, which has a range of about 50 miles, by moving many of their munitions depots and logistics bases beyond that distance, it said. Syrsky.
“When we talk about aviation, we are not talking about airplanes as such. We are talking about aviation platforms with a specific set of missiles, long-range missiles,” Syrsky said. “An increase in range will automatically move the frontline and the enemy’s capabilities will decrease radically.”
On the ground, Ukrainian tank crews have long yearned for modern main battle tanks – both to give them an edge over the Russians and to better protect them if they get hit.
Washington’s expedited delivery plan for Abrams was met with moderate enthusiasm by leaders of the 17th Separate Tank Brigade. In an interview in the eastern Donetsk region where he is deployed, the chief of staff of the 1st Tank Battalion, which goes by the callsign Wolf, said that “it is relevant, but only if they give more M1A2s further down the road.” line.”
“They’re probably choosing not to give us their best weapons right away, but to take it one step at a time,” Wolf said, citing the Pentagon’s decision to ship older model M1A1 Abrams tanks faster rather than deliver the more advanced variant, which could have taken a year or more to build.
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For now, the Ukrainians are operating with a hodgepodge of their own Soviet-era equipment and armor captured from the Russians.
A workhorse of the Ukrainian tank fleet, the T-64 entered service in the 1960s and tanks built on the model have since received better armor and electronics. But soldiers said even those upgrades can’t compete with western tanks like the Abrams, which are dripping with technology like advanced optics.
For Ukraine, an advantage of older tanks like the T-64 and T-72 over Western systems is that crews and mechanics know how to use and maintain them. A soldier said that a T-64 can be repaired quickly with “[crud] on a stick,” with an expletive to describe soldiers with few resources making repairs in the field.
The Abrams, on the other hand, carry a heavy logistical burden, the Pentagon said, with officials expressing concern that the Ukrainians will struggle with support and maintenance. “The Abrams tank is a very complicated piece of equipment,” Kahl told reporters in January. “It’s expensive. It’s hard to train on. It has a jet engine. I think it’s about three gallons per mile of jet fuel. It’s not the easiest system to maintain.”
Rizzo said that even if the United States takes action to deliver the Abrams as soon as possible, “we just don’t know where this war will be in six months.”
Some officials and diplomats acknowledge that the West’s strategy has come at the expense of Ukraine, but say it also reflected the political reality of assembling a broad international coalition.
“I’m sure it would have been nice to be where we are now six months ago,” Mark Gitenstein, the US ambassador to the European Union, told reporters late last month. “And I think it would have made a difference. But I don’t think it was possible to move it faster than [Biden] could move it. And he also had to get the American people on board.”
Galouchka and Horton reported from the Donetsk region. Karen DeYoung in Washington and Serhiy Morgunov in Kiev contributed to this report.
A year of the Russian war in Ukraine
Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion a year ago – in both big and small ways. They have learned to survive and support each other in extreme conditions, in bomb shelters and hospitals, devastated apartment complexes and devastated marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.
Struggle of Exhaustion: Over the past year, the war has moved from a multi-front invasion, including Kiev in the north, to an attrition conflict largely centered along a vast area in the east and south. Trace the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian troops and see where the fighting is concentrated.
Living separately for a year: The Russian invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law that prevents men of fighting age from leaving the country, has forced millions of Ukrainian families to make painful decisions about how to balance security, duty and love, shattering lives that were once intertwined. were intertwined, have become unrecognizable. This is what a train station full of farewells looked like last year.
Deepening the global division: President Biden has proclaimed the strengthened Western alliance forged during the war a “global coalition,” but a closer look reveals that the world is far from united on issues raised by the war in Ukraine. There is ample evidence that the attempt to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions have not stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.