How the West Allowed Russia To Regain the Initiative

Delays in Western countries committing key military aid, such as tanks, has opened the door for Russian forces to "regain the initiative" in the Ukraine war, according to a new assessment.

The 11-month war in Ukraine has developed in three stages, and the "pattern of delivery of Western aid has powerfully shaped" the course of the war, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said on Sunday.

The first period of the war was defined by the think tank as from February 24, 2022, when Russian forces invaded, until July 3, 2022.

Russian Soldiers
Volunteers have a military training in Rostov on December 6, 2022, amid the ongoing Russian military action in Ukraine. Delays in providing Western weapons to Ukraine gave Moscow's forces the opportunity to regain the initiative, according to the ISW. Stringer/AFP via Getty Images

In this first phase, Russian forces were on the offensive, but then Ukrainian resistance fighters "seized the initiative and began large-scale counteroffensives in August."

Although Ukraine succeeded in pushing Russian forces out of the western part of the Kherson region by mid-November, it has not been able to launch a new counteroffensive since this second stage of the war, the ISW said.

Moscow's forces then had the "opportunity to regain the initiative if they choose and to raise the bar for future Ukrainian counteroffensives even if they do not."

But Ukraine's ability to launch any counteroffensive in this third phase was limited by "Western reluctance to begin supplying Ukraine with higher-end Western weapons systems, particularly tanks, long-range strike systems, and air-defense systems."

Although internal challenges did hinder Ukraine's military, "weapons and supplies are always central to the planning and execution of sound campaigns," according to the ISW.

Without a high-functioning pre-war defense industry, Kyiv was heavily reliant on Western allies to furnish its armed forces with the necessary equipment, both to repel Russian forces and to launch counteroffensives, the ISW said.

Western aid in the initial months of the conflict was limited to restocking Ukraine's Soviet-era supplies, but by June, these resources from Ukraine-friendly states were dwindling, the ISW said. With Western countries unable to produce Soviet weaponry, countries such as the U.S. and U.K. should have transitioned to supplying Western weaponry at this point, according to the think tank.

Although Kyiv was receiving U.S.-supplied howitzers and HIMARS by July, Ukrainian advances through Kherson were far slower than throughout the Kharkiv region, the ISW noted, because they were concerned about running out of counteroffensive weapons.

If Western countries backing Ukraine had made the move to Western-made systems in the summer of 2022, the think tank said, Ukraine would have been better equipped to continue its counteroffensives after retaking areas in Kharkiv and Kherson.

By sending armored vehicles at this point, for example, Kyiv would have been able to "deprive the Russians of the ability to reconstitute their forces and attempt to regain the initiative."

Both the U.S. and Germany announced on January 25 that they would send a limited number of M1 Abrams and Leopard 2 main battle tanks to Ukraine. Berlin had long resisted calls to send, and to sanction the third party export of, the German-made tanks.

The U.S. and Germany had already committed Stryker Armored Personnel Carriers, Bradley Fighting Vehicles and Marder Infantry Fighting Vehicles, ahead of the U.K. saying it would send its Challenger 2 main battle tanks to Kyiv.