Ukraine’s fight for weapons and attention from the West provides an opportunity for Vladimir Putin

Servicemen of the 65th Mechanized Brigade of Ukraine are seen on November 4, 2023 at the Russian positions, known as “Xs”, taken by the 65th Mechanized Brigade, Zaporizhzhia region, southeastern Ukraine (Photo: Europa Press) (Europa Press /Contact/Dmytro Smo/)

At the end of September, the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyand the head of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, spoke of visiting the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels to meet with the group of countries that provided military support. The objective was keep the weapons flowing after a summer counteroffensive that had not produced great results.

By the time Zelensky arrived at the NATO campus on October 11 for his first visit since the Russian invasion, that mission had become even more urgent. Four days earlier, Hamas militants had attacked Israel from Gaza, and Israel was responding. Attention was now focused on a conflict in the Middle East.

The defense ministers of the nearly 50 countries of the so-called Ramstein group They met again this week. Although they reiterated their support, privately the atmosphere among officials is more sombre, since They admit that arms shipments have slowed down and financial aid has been paralyzed by domestic politics. In the weeks since Zelensky has been in Brussels, he has increased pressure on Ukraine to somehow chart a path to victory.

On the battlefield, the challenge is increasing in full winter and with a shortage of ammunition. Another concern is manpower, as Russia continues to launch waves of troops despite its losses, while kyiv is reluctant to send many more soldiers to the front.

Off the battlefield, some in the United States and Europe are beginning to wonder whether they can continue to pour already scarce resources into what Ukraine’s top general admits is a stalemate.

A Ukrainian soldier carries artillery shells to fire in the direction of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region (Photo: Europa Press)
A Ukrainian soldier carries artillery shells to fire in the direction of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region (Photo: Europa Press) (Europa Press/Contact/Aziz Karim/)

A year before the US elections, Kiev is aware that the clock is ticking and that military advances would make it easier for its partners to increase their aid, according to people familiar with the Ukrainian government’s thinking. But even before the Oct. 7 Hamas attack and the subsequent Israeli invasion of Gaza, Ukrainian officials had recorded declining interest, the people said.

Zelensky spent last week assuring allies that his military is preparing to fight through the winter, while a delegation from kyiv visited Washington. “Now I am focused on getting help from the West,” he said in his office on November 16. His “focus is changing because of the Middle East, and for other reasons. Without support, we will regress.”

The reality for Ukraine is that the front line in the war has barely changed significantly in a year. The Europeans are faltering in their effort to send much-needed artillery ammunition, while there are increasing signs of political fatigueespecially in the United States, the main sponsor of Ukraine.

The concern is that the decrease or insufficiency of aid could prematurely force Zelensky into peace talks from a position of weaknessor worse yet, allow Russia to pass through Ukrainian lines and give Putin no incentive to negotiate.

It’s a prospect that terrifies some Eastern European leaders, who have amplified their warnings about Vladimir Putin’s intentions for years. They say Russia will not stop at Ukraine’s borders and that some in the West still do not fully understand what is at stake.

The risk is that Ukraine’s allies will signal that they do not take defense seriously enough, Ukraine’s Prime Minister said last month. Estonia, Kaja Kallas, whose country borders Russia and was part of the Soviet Union, before an EU summit. Gabrielius Landsbergis, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania, neighboring Baltic country, stated that the lack of urgency could force Ukraine to enter into negotiations with Russia that it does not want.

“I am concerned about our collective ability to contribute to victory when I see that new tanks, new missile systems and even ammunition are not supplied, that solutions are not found, that “European Union decisions take months”Landsbergis told the radio station on Wednesday LRT. When compared to the aid Russia receives from North Korea, “it seems comical.”

Servicemen of the 12th Azov Special Forces Brigade of the Ukrainian National Guard prepare to fire from an LH-70 howitzer towards Russian troops (REUTERS/Alina Smutko)
Servicemen of the 12th Azov Special Forces Brigade of the Ukrainian National Guard prepare to fire from an LH-70 howitzer towards Russian troops (REUTERS/Alina Smutko) (ALINA SMUTKO/)

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was in kyiv this week to once again reaffirm US support. An existing funding package runs out at the end of the year, and with the conservative wing of Republicans in control of the House of Representatives, President Joe Biden is finding it difficult to continue funding.

The Pentagon stated earlier this month that it had already had to reduce the flow of weapons to Ukraine due to the congressional blockade. Next year’s presidential election campaign is going to make it even more difficult for Biden, especially if he faces Donald Trump, who has repeatedly criticized lawmakers for providing aid to kyiv.

A senior European official said it would be politically difficult for Biden to sell a stalemate to voters while his opponents promise to end the war in one day. A Gallup poll in early November showed that 41% of Americans believe their government is doing too much for Ukrainecompared to only 29% in June.

A month ago there was still hope that the US would finally get Congress to approve funding for Ukraine, but now there is little optimism, according to an EU diplomat. Last week, Congress passed a stopgap bill to extend government funding through early 2024, but it did not include aid for Ukraine or Israel.

The legislature will resume efforts to pass the Biden administration’s $61 billion aid package for Ukraine next week, and supporters hope it can be approved before the end of the year. But if partisan horse-trading and growing Republican skepticism conspire to delay it until 2024, election pressures could raise more doubts about its passage.

With the exception of a relatively small amount of artillery ammunition, Israel’s requests for military aid from the United States barely match the weapons systems Ukraine wants.

But that could change, especially if the war spreads, potentially jeopardizing supplies, another senior European official said. Zelensky complained last week that the supply of 155-millimeter projectiles has dwindled after Israel ordered some.

Ukrainian soldiers attend air defense drills (REUTERS/Gleb Garanich)
Ukrainian soldiers attend air defense drills (REUTERS/Gleb Garanich) (GLEB GARANICH/)

The concern is that the lack of continued arms assistance could give Putin an advantage, the EU diplomat said. AND reaching an agreement with Russia is not an alternative, according to the president of Latvia, Edgars Rinkevics, another Baltic State that has been one of those that has provided the most support to Ukraine. Any ceasefire would risk Russia coming back stronger, he said.

“We just have to move forward and we have to work on a more long-term or structural support system for Ukraine, understanding that “Russia at the same time is also mobilizing its economy, its forces and is prepared for some long effort.”he said in an interview in Brussels on November 16.

Political machinations in the United States are putting more of the burden on the EU. European diplomats say they have been preparing for a scenario in which American support could wane. Although the EU can offer Ukraine financial aid, it can only cope with a fraction of what the United States offers in terms of arms aid, according to Liana Fix, European member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Both sides are using more ammunition than they can supply. But unlike Europe or the United States, Moscow’s economy is on a war footingallowing the industry to bomb shells, drones and other weapons more consistently.

“Replacing even a significant part of the military support of the Americans will simply be impossible, because the Europeans simply do not have stocks to supply themselves with,” Fix said. “That’s why it’s so important for the United States to get Ukraine funding back on track.”

It is estimated that Russia will produce 2 million cartridges next year, to which must be added the North Korean foreign aidwhich amounts to more than 1 million projectiles, according to a South Korean legislator.

Meanwhile, the EU has admitted that it will not meet the target of supplying Ukraine with one million artillery shells by the end of March, despite its efforts to boost its defense industry, and Hungary and now Slovakia have expressed their opposition to continuing to support kyiv.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the EU leader closest to Putin, demanded the bloc hold an “urgent discussion” on Ukraine because the situation on the battlefield “has largely not changed,” casting doubt on a victory, according to a letter to the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, obtained by Bloomberg this week. Orban, who also criticized sanctions against Russia, said no decision on aid or security guarantees should be made without consensus, something he has been willing to break.

Wednesday’s election victory of Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders also adds to the mix. His manifesto stated that money and defense material should be reserved for his country’s own armed forces.

Before the conflict between Israel and Hamas, weeks of tumult had raised some doubts about some European commitment to Ukraine.

First of all, there was an unpleasant dispute with Poland, Ukraine’s most important European ally, over grain exports that led to what appeared to be a threat from Warsaw to halt arms deliveries. Poland declared itself misunderstood and, with the opposition’s victory in the October 15 elections, is likely to align itself more with Western Europe. But the new government in neighboring Slovakia has promised to stop some of its military aid.

The EU is also struggling to agree on various funding items, and plans for a 12th Russian sanctions package are ongoing. The European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, has formally recommended starting accession talks with Ukraine. But this requires the agreement of all member states, and Hungary is opposed.

The Italian Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, summed up the unit’s deterioration when some Russian comedians played a prank on him in early November. Meloni said that he saw “a lot of fatigue” on the part of “all sides” and that “we are close to the moment in which everyone understands that “We need a way out.”

Ukrainian soldiers ride along the road in an armored vehicle on the outskirts of Bakhmut
Ukrainian soldiers drive along the road in an armored vehicle on the outskirts of Bakhmut (Madeleine Kelly / Zuma Press / ContactoPhoto/)

All of this marks the beginning of what could be a difficult few months for Ukraine. Expectations for the Ukrainian counteroffensive are low heading into winter, as the weather is likely to make mobility even more difficult.

The concern in kyiv is that the next major attack will once again be against its energy infrastructure just as the mercury plummets. Russian forces are stockpiling missiles and waiting for cold weather to strike power and energy grids, according to people familiar with the matter, raising fears that the attacks could overwhelm Ukraine’s air defenses despite its additional systems.

Faced with a long war, Russia sees momentum shifting in its favor, according to people in Moscow familiar with the matter. In his opinion, Putin has two options: continue hammering to wear down his opponent and his allies or try to mount a new big push in the spring. The latter would probably require unpopular mass mobilization.

Zelensky may not yet be thinking about his negotiating strategy for peace talks. However, polls show that a small but growing minority of Ukrainians are coming around to the idea that territorial concessions to Russia could be an inevitable price for peace.

Ukraine is frustrated because some allies did not realize the magnitude of the battlefield and underestimated the strength of the Russian defensive lines that bogged down the counteroffensive. Expectations were too high, according to one of Zelensky’s closest aides.

To illustrate the challenge, Ukrainian officials prepared a presentation for allies comparing the length of the line of contact between their forces and Russian troops to that of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Ukrainian forces have made some progress. They have attacked strategic assets far behind Russian-occupied lines, even with the help of the new US long-range ATACMS missiles. The recent successful crossing of the Dnipro river allows troops to push further south and increase attacks against Russian forces in Crimea.

But even that is not enough to break the stalemate, according to Ukrainian commander-in-chief General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi. “Just like in World War I, we have reached a technological level that places us at a stalemate“, he wrote in The Economist earlier this month. A technological breakthrough would be needed to end the stalemate, he said.

Russia itself does not have enough ammunition to mount a significant offensive this year and, despite having mobilized its defense industry, is still unable to meet the huge demand, according to a senior NATO official. Instead, it is concentrating on taking up positions in the eastern region of Donetsk and pick up parts you lost last year around Kharkovaccording to people familiar with the matter.

Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelensky awards medals for heroism to soldiers (Photo: Europa Press)
Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelensky awards medals for heroism to soldiers (Photo: Europa Press) (Europa Press/Contact/Pool /Ukra/)

And as key sectors of the Russian economy adapt to the international sanctionsPutin’s government is depleting its resources to maintain state spending, something it cannot do indefinitely following the exodus of foreign investors and skilled labor.

Even to some inside Russia, the situation on the ground appears bleak for Moscow. The Russian government’s belief that it can “wait for the West” is a dangerous self-deception, according to Mikhail Barabanov, a defense expert at the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies in Moscow.

“A protracted war could cement Ukraine’s role as a critical U.S. ally, similar to that of Israel. and this would mean a serious geopolitical defeat for Moscow,” he stated.

Visiting Kiev this week, Defense Secretary Austin announced a $100 million weapons package using some of the remaining funds from the package previously agreed to by Biden. Germany followed with 1.3 billion euros ($1.4 billion) in military aid the next day.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet that the war to eliminate Hamas would not stop after a ceasefire, even after a deal to release hostages in Gaza in exchange for a temporary pause in fighting. .

In posts on the social media platform “Ukraine’s fight against Putin’s aggression is a marathon,” she said, “not a sprint.”