As Russia refocuses its invasion of Ukraine on the east, recognition is growing in Kyiv and allied capitals that the window to prevent the nation’s partition and a long war of attrition may be narrow.
The recent withdrawal of Russian troops from around Kyiv represents a defeat, after Ukraine’s military stalled their advance with a combination of urban warfare and attacks on supply lines.
Yet to roll back, or even contain a grinding advance by reinforced Russian units across the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions would mean taking the fight to open battlefields, requiring more than just the light anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles the U.S. and Europe have supplied so far.
“Planes, shore-to-vessel missiles, personnel armored vehicles, heavy air-defense systems,” Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said before meeting with North Atlantic Treaty Organization counterparts in Brussels on Thursday, when asked what he was requesting.
Speaking after the meeting, he predicted that the coming battle for the east would be reminiscent of World War II, involving large-scale operations and thousands of tanks and artillery pieces.
“Either you help us now — and I’m speaking about days not weeks — or your help will come too late and many people will die,” Kuleba said. He didn’t doubt Ukraine would receive the arms it needs, he said, but “the question is the timeline.”
Six weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of neighboring Ukraine, the war is entering a new phase, one that may allow Ukraine just weeks to procure and deploy those weapons.
That’s how long it’s likely to take Russia to reconstitute units for a major assault in the east, adding what areas of the Donbas region remain in Ukrainian hands to a swathe of territory it already holds. With that achieved, Russian forces could dig in for a long and destabilizing war to force an eventual settlement, imposing a heavy toll on Ukraine, as well as steep costs for Europe’s economy and for Russia itself.
“Allies should do more and are ready to do more to provide more equipment, and they realize and recognize the urgency,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said after Thursday’s meeting. “This war may last for weeks, but also months and possibly also for years.”
The question of whether the war in Ukraine can be brought to an end quickly or develops into a yearslong conflict such as in Syria — ongoing since 2011 — is now seen as central, according to a Western official familiar with discussions among NATO allies.
The exposure of alleged Russian war crimes against civilians in reclaimed towns has given fresh impetus to U.S., U.K. and European Union sanctions against Russia. The EU on Thursday agreed to ban imports of Russian coal, and discussions of potential oil and natural gas embargoes are likely to follow. Japan announced sweeping new sanctions Friday.
Sanctions have had no discernible impact on Putin’s invasion plans to date, so the focus is growing on weapons capable of evening the balance on the ground in what U.K. Armed Forces Minister James Heappey described in a statement Thursday as “this next phase of the conflict.”
Heappey had just hosted a group of senior Ukrainian officers, led by Deputy Defense Minister Volodymyr Havrylov, for demonstrations of “a range of equipment and options for further military support, including defensive missile systems and protected mobility vehicles,” according to the statement.
NATO has refused to send in troops to Ukraine or supply it with aircraft citing the risk of sparking a wider conflict with Russia. Neither will it enforce a no-fly zone as requested repeatedly by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Initial reluctance on the part of NATO allies to send larger offensive weaponry for the same reasons is subsiding, albeit too slowly from Ukraine’s point of view. Kuleba singled out Germany, welcoming Berlin’s seismic shift to provide arms at all, but criticizing its slow pace. “While Berlin has time, Kyiv doesn’t,” he said.
Germany had offered Ukraine 100 Marder tanks, but that deal now appears in doubt as they have been standing out in the rain so long they would need months of repair, according to a German official.
At a meeting of Group of Seven foreign ministers on Thursday, the U.K. argued it was time to give Ukraine whatever level of equipment it asked for, while the U.S. said it was ready to help it get tanks and longer range anti-aircraft systems, according to a person familiar with the discussions. More broadly, the G7 agreed on the importance of back filling to replace equipment that countries send to Ukraine, the person said.
Tanks and drones
The U.K. already said it was adding its Starstreak anti-aircraft system to the 3,615 light anti-tank weapons, known as NLAWs, it has sent Kyiv. The Times of London this week reported that the U.K. was also deciding between two armored patrol vehicle models — the Mastiff and Jackal — to offer.
Australia said it would deliver 20 of its Bushmaster armored personnel carriers to Ukraine, after Zelenskyy requested them specifically. On Friday it pledged a further $20 million worth of anti-armor weapons and ammunition.
Also on Friday, Slovakia said it had sent an S-300 long range anti-aircraft battery, a Soviet-era equivalent to the U.S. Patriot missile system.
The Czech Republic’s public broadcaster this week showed footage of five T-72 tanks and five armored vehicles loaded on a train, saying it was a delivery to Ukraine agreed to with NATO allies. Defense Minister Jana Černochová confirmed in a tweet that the Czechs were making deliveries, but said she wouldn’t help Russia by identifying them.
Washington is also sending Ukraine Switchblade armed drones, as well as fresh supplies of Javelin anti-tank missiles for use on the eastern front once the anticipated Russian assault begins, according to U.S. officials.
The quantities of heavy weaponry are for now small and some equipment takes months of training to operate. Whether enough can be deployed to the Donbas front in time to take on the expected Russian onslaught is unclear. High intensity conflict runs through ammunition and equipment fast, and Ukraine’s forces will face their own logistical challenges as Russia targets fuel and munitions depots in long range missile strikes.
Much will depend, too, on the Russian ability to reconstitute and concentrate forces that have taken a beating in the north.
To succeed, Ukraine will need not just tanks, but also good intelligence, more of the advanced light weaponry it has used to such effect and ample territorial forces to prevent the encirclement from behind of their front line forces, Mark Hertling, a former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, said in a Twitter thread.
“Donbas will be a battle of attrition,” he said.
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