Undersupplied Ukraine Prepares Spring Offensive With Limited Western Arms

Thirteen months after the start of Vladimir Putin's war against Ukraine, officials in both Kyiv and the West lack a concrete understanding as to why the Russian leader chose to launch his invasion, and still cannot say with confidence what hypothetical development might ultimately persuade him to call off the fight.

As the Ukrainian military gears up for an expected spring counteroffensive, military analysts see a Ukrainian breakthrough on the battlefield as the quickest, least costly potential path to peace. If such an outcome is to be achieved, however, it will require Ukraine's Western partners to provide Kyiv with additional shipments of military aid, and to do so on a shorter timescale than previous deliveries have taken.

The success of the Ukrainian military will likely come down to its capacity to continue making the most of a slow and insufficient supply of Western weaponry. Since the start of Russia's full-scale invasion, the United States has pledged over $30 billion in assistance, with a collection of other democratic states promising approximately $20 billion more. But while the delivery of Javelin anti-tank systems, HIMARS multiple rocket launchers and M777 howitzers have played a decisive role in Ukraine's battlefield successes to date, military analysts say that much more is needed.

"There's a very flawed argument going around among some experts and some folks in the policy community," George Barros of the Institute for the Study of War told Newsweek. "They say, essentially, 'we've been sending Ukraine all of these weapons, and they still haven't made a major breakthrough since Kherson in November; therefore, military aid to Ukraine is a sunk cost."

"The flaw with the argument is that, if you study Ukraine's operational needs and compare it to what we're sending, there's a huge disparity there," he explained. "The problem is that we haven't actually given the Ukrainians enough for them to demonstrate what they're really capable of."

"Their bandwidth capability hasn't been saturated," Barros added, "and yet we keep Ukraine on a starvation diet of aid."

Bakhmut Artillery
Ukrainian servicemen fire a 105mm howitzer towards Russian positions near the city of Bakhmut on March 8, 2023. The battle for the city in the eastern Donbas region has been raging since August. However, while Russia appears to have exhausted much of its offensive combat capabilities in the fight for Bakhmut, Ukraine has used the winter to build up a force which is expected to be deployed in counteroffensive operations elsewhere in the county this spring and summer. ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images

While some critics of the effort to arm Ukraine point to the out-of-pocket expense to taxpayers, Barros argues that so long as the Russian military continues to pose a threat to the peace and prosperity of the European continent, Western governments will be compelled to spend money on defense.

Given Ukrainian soldiers' continued willingness to physically counteract that threat on behalf of the greater Western world, it would appear to be in the enlightened self-interest of all democratic capitals to provide Ukraine with the necessary weaponry to defeat the Russian army on the battlefield.

"We spent decades building a strategic stockpile in order to be prepared for any sort of hypothetical 'big war' with Russia," Barros explained. "From a strictly realist and a strictly selfish American interest perspective, the Ukrainians are fighting the war for us using a fraction of the resources that we would have had to spend ourselves in a conflict with the conventional Russian military."

It's actually a tremendously efficient use of our defense dollars," he added.

At the moment, neither party to the conflict appears motivated to seek peace.

"If you look at the situation from the perspective of each side, it's easy to understand why neither Putin nor Zelensky is prepared to come to the negotiating table," John Tefft, a former U.S. ambassador to both Russia and Ukraine and a current adjunct senior fellow at the RAND Corporation, told Newsweek.

"Putin bet the ranch, and he seems to be willing to risk almost anything at this point to achieve full control over Ukraine," Tefft added. "For the Ukrainians, that means that this is a battle for national survival, and they're determined to resist."

Since February 24, 2022, when Russia launched its full-scale invasion, Ukrainians have shown they are willing and able to fight, driving Russia's occupying forces from the areas around Kyiv last April, from the Kharkiv region in September, and from the city of Kherson in November.

In recent months the two sides have fought essentially to a standstill around Bakhmut. Although Russia appears to have exhausted its capacity to carry out offensive operations, only time will tell whether or not Putin's forces still possess sufficient strength to prevent Ukraine from making further breakthroughs this spring and summer.

Bakhmut Satellite
Satellite imagery taken by Maxar Technologies on March 6, 2023 shows damage to a roadway and bridge in Bakhmut, Ukraine. Only around 4,000 of the city's prewar population of 70,000 remain there today. As Ukrainian counteroffensive operations begin on other fronts in the coming months, scenes such as those witnessed in Bakhmut could soon appear elsewhere in Ukraine. Satellite image ©2023 Maxar Technologies.

"There are people out there who speculate about an eventual armistice, a peace on the lines of the Korean model," Tefft explained. "But there are still too many variables that have to be sorted out before we can really start to realistically imagine how or when this conflict might end."

"I get very nervous when I see anyone say with any level of certainty that they know how all of this is coming out," he added.

Another concern that critics raise is fear of Russian escalation. In his February 24, 2022 speech announcing the start of Russia's so-called "special military operation," Putin hinted at Russia's willingness to use nuclear weapons, saying that: "Whoever tries to hinder us...should know that the response of Russia will be immediate and will carry with it such consequences as you have never come up against in your history. We are ready for any development of events. All necessary decisions in this regard have already been made. I hope that I will be understood."

The vague nuclear rhetoric has continued ever since, with Russian officials hinting that the Western provision of HIMARS, or of main battle tanks, or of fixed-wing aircraft might constitute a nuclear red line for the Kremlin. Similar rhetoric has been used in order to warn Ukraine that strikes on the territory of Crimea, or attacks in the four additional occupied regions that Russia illegally annexed in September 2022, or inside the Russian Federation itself, would also risk a nuclear escalation.

In his joint press conference with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Moscow on Tuesday, Putin suggested that the provision to Ukraine of tank shells containing depleted uranium might also lead to a nuclear Russian response.

"If this happens," Putin, said, "then Russia will be forced to respond to the collective West's use of weapons which contain nuclear components."

According to Barros, the Kremlin's apocalyptic rhetoric does not represent a serious threat. Rather, it is a tool which Russian officials have deployed with conscious intent, and, it must be said, to notable effect.

"Every time we start a discussion about the West providing Ukraine with a new weapons system, the Kremlin starts hinting that 'this time we're really approaching their nuclear red line,'" Barros said. "And every time we go on to provide Ukraine with the system in question, it turns out that the Russian red line didn't exist."

"We have to stop delaying aid deliveries based on fears which are being stoked intentionally by Kremlin information operations," he explained. "If we in the West hadn't spent so much time debating whether or not it was okay to send Ukraine main battle tanks, then the Ukrainians would already be equipped to use those tanks today."

Barros said it is the delay in the Western provision of aid—not the provision of aid itself—which is acting to prolong the conflict.

"The Kremlin successfully bought time to patch holes in its defenses," he said, "and it's not the Ukrainians' fault that that happened; it's our fault."

"I still expect that Ukraine will do well this spring and summer with what they have," Barros said, "but that doesn't mean we're doing enough to help them end this war as quickly as possible."

"We're not," he added.

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