BAKHMOUT – From a hiding place in a bombed-out house in eastern Ukraine, army commander Mykhailo Strebizh twirls a mortar shell the size of a bowling pin, calling it “the help we received from Europe and America”.
He then turns to a makeshift blackboard – a door with words written on it in chalk – showing weapon inventories. A line indicates “NATO” in Cyrillic letters, then a number: 11.
These days, the beleaguered but adamant Ukrainian forces rely heavily on the help they receive from abroad.
As Russia’s initially sloppy and broad offensive focuses on the eastern Donbass region, the war has entered a new and seemingly more enduring phase. While Russia has kept silent about its war casualties, Ukrainian authorities say up to 200 of their soldiers die every day. Experts say both sides are suffering heavy losses.
Last week, the United States upped the ante with its biggest pledge of aid to Ukrainian forces yet — an additional $1 billion in military assistance aimed at helping push back or reverse Russian advances.
But experts note that these aid deliveries have not kept pace with need, raising questions about the sustainability of the war effort – and how defense industries on both sides can continue to feed it.
“We are moving from peacetime to wartime,” said Francois Heisbourg, senior adviser to the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research think tank. “Peacetime means low production rates, and increasing the production rate means you have to build industrial facilities first… This is a defense industrial challenge that is of a very large scale .”
This partly explains why Western deliveries of high-profile support to Ukraine have often been insufficient and slow in coming.
The Kiel Institute for the World Economy in Germany released a “Ukraine Support Tracker” last week which shows that the United States has fulfilled about half of its military support commitments to Ukraine, and the Germany about a third. Poland and Britain have both delivered on much of what they promised, according to the report.
Earlier this month, Ukraine’s ambassador to Madrid, Serhii Phoreltsev, thanked Spain – which trumpeted sending 200 tonnes of military aid in April – but said the munitions included would not were only sufficient for “about two hours of combat”.
Ukrainian filmmaker-turned-fighter Volodymyr Demchenko tweeted a video of himself expressing his gratitude for American guns: “There are American guns they send to us. They are nice rifles and 120 bullets each,” he said, before lamenting, “It’s like 15 minutes of combat.”
Over the weekend, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned the war could last for years, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised increased training for Ukrainian troops abroad, the latest a sign that friends of the Ukrainian government are digging for the long haul even as he warned of growing “Ukrainian fatigue” in the minds of the public abroad.
Part of the problem is that Ukrainian forces, whose country was once a staunch member of the Soviet Union, are more familiar with Soviet-era weaponry than NATO equipment. Take the artillery: the Western standard is 155mm artillery, while Russian and Ukrainian forces have traditionally used 152mm stocks.
Countless Ukrainians have traveled abroad to train on the Western standard kit.
Of the US$1 billion pledge, only slightly more than a third of that will be Pentagon-ready rapid deliveries, and the rest will be available in the longer term. The pledge, which includes 18 howitzers and 36,000 rounds for them, responds to Ukraine’s call for more longer-range weapons.
This is well below what the Ukrainians want – 1,000 155mm caliber howitzers, 300 multiple rocket launchers, 500 tanks, 2,000 armored vehicles and 1,000 drones – as Presidential adviser Volodymyr Zelensky tweeted , Mikhail Podolyak last week, ahead of the latest big Western promises. .
“What the Ukrainians have to do is conduct what the military tends to call a counter-battery operation” to respond to Russian artillery fire, said Ben Barry, former director of the general staff of British Army and Senior Fellow for Land Warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “To do that, you need accurate weapons with a high rate of fire and a range that allows them to stay clear of the artillery on the other side.”
“The Ukrainians say they don’t have enough long-range rockets to adequately suppress Russian artillery,” he said. “I think they’re probably right.”
Analysts say the great advantage of the Russian military has been its artillery stockpiles and expertise in its use that dates back centuries. Their focus on the east, and not on wider swaths of Ukraine, allowed them to shorten supply lines that were too long at the start of this war.
Time, on the other hand, is in Ukraine’s favor, experts say: Ukrainian fighters are both motivated and mobilized – every man in the country of 40 million people has been called up to fight, while Russia has so far avoided a call for conscripts, which could largely swing the war in Russia’s favor, but may not be popular with all Russians.
Experts have noted a drop in morale on both sides as the stalemate, especially in and around the city of Sievierodonetsk in recent weeks, has shaken the fighting spirit and prompted frontline fighters to question and challenge orders from above.
Russia has targeted stockpiles and supply lines and hit them, according to Russian military leaders. The Ukrainian authorities have either denied these claims or said nothing about them: neither side wants to tell the other too much about the damage and deaths they are suffering.
As for how long such fighting could last at least, the Heisbourg analyst admits “it’s difficult” but sees parallels between Ukraine today and France when Germany invaded in World War I. world – a population of about 40 million in Ukraine today and in France before this war; the invaders approached the capital very early on before being pushed back a little; France had ammunition shortages, just as Ukraine has today with artillery.
A years-long war of attrition is “very possible”, he said.
Jamey Keaten reported from Geneva.
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