Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has been travelling to London, France and Brussels in recent days to plead with the west to give him more weapons, specifically to give him jet fighters now that a battalion of modern main battle tanks (MBTs) has been promised.
Unless the West agrees and also speeds up the delivery of the tanks, Ukraine is in danger of losing the war against Russia this summer – “losing” in the sense that Russia is expected to surge its military efforts with a fresh call up and threatens to overwhelm Ukraine’s heroic forces, complete it capture of greater Donbas region, when Russian President Vladimir Putin can declare a victory and freeze the conflict. Ukraine is already running low on the critically important ammunition, especaily 155mm arrtillery shells, and a potential ammunition crissi is looming.
More help needs to be delievered right now. Ukraine has a window of opportunity in these next two months to strike a hammer blow against Russia’s forces, which are currently of poor quality, undersupplied and undermanned at the front, as it has taken a six month defensive stand as it trains its new recruits and waits for its factories to manufacture more arms. Tanks and planes could break lines and possibly repeat the rout in Kharkiv last September. If Ukraine waits until summer to launch a counteroffensive it will almost certainly face a much bigger, better trained and supplied Russian army. Tanks, planes and modern offensive missiles could make all the difference.
After a year of fighting both sides are becoming exhausted, but Russia has already brought an extra 300,000 conscripts to the fight with a partial mobilisation that started on September 21 and could add an additional half a million men, or more, in the widely anticipated mass mobilisation that all signs suggest will start sometime in March.
Manpower is going to make a big difference. Without the powerful modern western offensive weapons, the war in Ukraine increasingly looks like something out of WWII; troops cower in trenches as artillery pounds both sides’ positions causing a steady stream of deaths. There is little footage of high tech “bunker busters” that filled screens during the Iraq war. In this set up another half a million men, even of low fighting quality, could prove decisive.
To add to the problems, while Russia has already long since started to put its economy on a war footing, as bne IntelliNews reported, Ukraine is running out of ammunition, as the West has yet to invest into expanding its munitions production. The US has donated around one million of the crucial 155mm artillery shells, but it can only produce 100,000 a year, according to a recent study. Ukraine is currently firing off in a day what the US can produce in a month.
An ammunition shortage is looming and reports from the frontline by bne IntelliNews’ reporters and others is that Ukraine is already being forced to ration its shells. While more shells are available from the likes of US allies in South Korea and Israel, probably enough to get to the end of this year, the lack of ammunition is already starting to tell on Ukraine’s ability to resist a Russian onslaught.
Igor Zhovkva, Deputy Head of Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelenskiy’s office, told Bloomberg the country’s stocks are “almost zero” in an interview on February 10. Intense fighting in Ukraine means that its military is running out of ammunition, with stocks not being replenished in time, Zhovkva said.
Zhovkva lamented that “now we are having like almost zero ammunition,” a situation that makes it harder for the Ukrainian military to respond to Russian shelling. “We are running [out] of the ammunition very quickly because the fights are intensive,” he said, adding that Russia has more firepower.
He also said the West needs to send more arms, including long-range missiles to “de-occupy Ukrainian territory,” as opposed to hitting targets inside Russia.
According to Zhovkva, this type of weaponry would be crucial to launch a counteroffensive against Moscow’s forces. Commenting on the military aid already provided by the West, Zhovkva said that it was “too late, too little, and too slow.”
Zelenskiy made little progress on this European tour to get more planes. Indeed, despite the promise of MBTs, the West remains extremely reluctant to send Ukraine offensive weapons. The refusal to follow up with jets means that the war goals of the west remain: avoid a direct confrontation between Nato and Russia at all costs and ensure Ukraine doesn’t lose to Russia in second place. Ensuring Ukraine wins the war is not a Western war goal, but it would be nice if it happened.
Zelenskiy has been asking for tanks and planes since the first weeks of the war. Shortly after Russia’s invasion a year ago Zelenskiy raged against Nato in a video address at its refusal to close the skies to Russian planes. “All the people who will die starting from this day will die because of you. Because of your weakness. Because of your disunity,” Zelenskiy said in a video address to the Alliance. In another video made in the third week of the war, he demanded the West supply him with “1% of its 20,000 tanks” as well as planes. “We didn’t ask for this war… We just want to survive.”
He gave a much more polished address in Brussels this week as Ukraine has received an enormous amount of military aid since then, but his basic demands, that he has been making since the start of the war a full year ago, have not been met. The west has refused all requests for offensive weapons that could change the tide of the war, while sending huge quantities of defence weapons.
Not a single tank has actually arrived – one Leopard has arrived from Canada and is sitting in Poland -- and half of the total of 421 that have been promised could take up to a year to be delivered. According to reports a total of 28 Leopards are supposed to arrive by the end of February and another 28 will probably arrive in March. Those will be more than welcome, but they cannot change the tide of the war by themselves, according to a recent note by economist Adam Tooze. At least a whole brigade would be needed to make a significant impact, about 400 tanks.
Nevertheless, the promise of tanks was a breakthrough and is another token of a slow escalation. Zelenskiy immediately followed up with demands for jets, but those have largely fallen on deaf ears.
Poland is amongst the few countries willing to supply the US-made F-16 fighters and was instrumental in forcing the tank deal through by threatening to send its own Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine unilaterally, ignoring its obligation to seek German permission. However, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki recently told reporters that the transfer of any aircraft to Ukraine could happen “only in agreement with Nato countries” and Poland "will act in full coordination" with its allies.
Since then, US President Joe Biden said the US won’t send F-16 jets to Ukraine, even though the US is ramping up military assistance in the form of artillery and tanks.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell likewise said in recent days sending fighter jets to Ukraine not on EU’s agenda and dismissed the idea as a “highly controversial” issue, according to El Pais.
French President Emmanuel Macron earlier said he did not rule out sending fighter jets to Ukraine but followed up on February 9 by saying it is not on the agenda for the moment.
Ukraine has gone as far as formally applying to the Netherlands for fighter jets, according to Dutch Defence Minister Kajsa Ollongren. "And we have to look seriously at the consequences, it can't just happen overnight. We have to be honest about that," Ollongren told the local media in response.
Even the UK government, Ukraine’s staunchest military ally in Europe, has ruled out sending fighter jets to Ukraine for now, although it has started training Ukrainian pilots on Nato jets. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told the BBC on February 9 that there won’t be an immediate transfer of fighter jets to Ukraine but did not exclude the possibility of supplying them.
Windows of opportunity
Zelenskiy must be very frustrated and increasingly worried about what the rest of the year holds. Even the analysts in Washington worry that “time might be on Russia’s side,” according to a report in the Wall Street Journal, which has added to the impetus to provide Ukraine with tanks.
Confidence that EU unity and the crushing pressure of sanctions would force the Kremlin to seek an off ramp have faded as it becomes increasingly clear that they have failed to put any significant pressure on the Russian economy. Indeed, the current downturn has been less painful than the drop caused by the coronavirus pandemic, as far as the main macroeconomic indicators show. The Kremlin will not be forced to the negotiating table by economic problems and the newest rounds of sanctions have less and less bite, increasingly hurting Europe more than they hurt Russia. Russia’s economy will “grow” faster this year than both the German and British economies, according to the World Bank.
It seems pretty clear that Russia is planning a surge in the spring. Russia has a window of opportunity between now and April before the first companies of Nato MBTs arrive in the fields of Ukraine. And as the tanks will be dribbled into the fight over the following year that window will be closed pretty slowly. The western tanks are not expected to reach brigade strength until 2024, long after the worst of the fighting, which will probably happen this summer, is over.
Ukraine also has a window of opportunity, but a much smaller one that will close much faster – and soon.
Tanks are a game changer as they are the first offensive weapons to be sent to Ukraine. Javelins, HIMARS and Patriots missiles are all deadly and very sophisticated systems, but they are not good at killing lots of infantry. Russia doesn’t have many smart missiles left but what it does have in spades is dumb artillery that is good at killing infantry.
And it is using it to good effect. Ukrainian forces on-the-ground are of high quality and easily killing the Russian ex-convicts they meet on the streets of Bakhmut, according to reports, but they are sitting under a barrage of Russian shelling that is slowly killing them off.
The war has become a grinding war of attrition, fought for the most part with 155mm artillery shells, grenades dropped from toy drones and Kalashnikovs, as well as some Soviet era tanks that are being used as artillery and the occasional high precision HIMAR rocket that takes out a Russian command post or large bomb dropped by Russia on schools and apartment buildings full of refugees. Amongst Russia’s most effective tactics has been to blow up power stations and flatten towns with its artillery. It doesn’t have many other alternatives in its playbook and has shown itself unable to even capture relatively unimportant towns.
It’s become a brutal fight. And it's ground down to a stalemate. Russia has been assaulting Bakhmut for about six months and in that time its gains can be measured in the metres.
Without the West’s sophisticated powerful weapons raw manpower is a key factor in winning the war.
Both sides are keeping the number of dead a closely guarded secret. The official count from both sides is not to be believed. However, from the various reported leaks, including a slip up in a speech by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Ukraine seems to have lost 100,000-130,000 men whereas the toll on Russia is probably around 150,000 according to some reports.
That improves Russia’s hand, says military analyst Michal Kofman in a recent thread, as Russia has at least three times the population Ukraine does. Even if Ukraine kills two Russians for every one Ukrainian, that strengthens Russia’s hand as Ukraine will run out of men before Russia does. A long war plays to Russia’s manpower advantage, even if that is offset by the poor quality of its fighters. Russia won the war against the Nazis with similar tactics: 25mn Soviet citizens died vs about 10mn German, while the US and the UK lost about half a million men each.
Russia started the war with some 300,000 soldiers but has lost about half that number. Since then thanks to the partial mobilisation that started on September 21 it has replaced the fallen and brought its forces up to some 450,000 that has stabilised its frontline.
Russian General Sergey Surovikin decision in September to abandon Kherson has also improved Russia’s position as it has shortened the line, allowed Russia to withdraw the 20-30 BTGs bottled up in the city and retreated behind the easier to defend Dnipro river. At the same time Surovikin ordered his men to dig in and set up multi-layered defences and has given up the costly assaults, according to Kofman. The battle for Bakhmut is being fought almost exclusively by the expendable Wagner PMC ex-convicts. Russia is preserving its manpower for the widely anticipated big push in the spring.
Ukraine has a similar number of men in the field. It started out with some 250,000 professional soldiers, according to various reports, but since then the ranks have swollen to as many as one million soldiers, according to reports, but like Russia, the majority of these are green fighters and of less use in an assault. Indeed, Politico recently reported that there are discipline issues in the Ukrainian army after Zelenskiy increased the severity of punishments for desertion after inexperienced soldiers fled the battlefield in fear of their lives. Reports from Bakhmut say the soldiers there are being worn down physically and mentally. The lack of effective manpower and supplies mean that unlike the Russian soldiers defending the frontline, they can be rotated less often and Russia’s tactic in Bakhmut increasing appears to be not to take the city per se, but simply to wear down the Ukrainian resistance and force it to use up its ammo.
By the summer the issue of how long Ukraine can keep this up without game changing armament will increasingly become an issue, especially if Russia becomes even more organised and starts a regular flow of fresh men and materiel into the battle.
Few have faith in Russia’s ability to organise this major long-term campaign, as it began the war so disastrously. However, we should be cautious as WWII started the same way when Stalin went into meltdown after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union during Operation Barbarossa. Stalin went into shock and simply locked himself away for the first few crucial days as hundreds of thousands of Russian troops were easily captured and the Nazi tore through Soviet lands.
However, eventually the Soviets reorganised themselves, moved their military production to beyond the Ural mountains and Mashal Gregory Zhukov was put in charge who turned the campaign around. Surovikin may not be a Zhukov, but if he is half competent and makes use of Russia’s superior manpower he could still at least achieve Putin’s minimalist war goal of capturing the Donbas. Without western modern weapons Ukraine will have its work cut out for it to prevent that even if the Russian military is poorly led simply because of the number of men it can throw into the field and its ongoing overwhelming advantage in artillery.