Arms race in eastern Ukraine

Russia ramped up the intensity of its attack to gain an advantage before Western heavy weaponry reached Ukraine, while Kyiv struggled to hold its ground.

After shifting its focus to eastern Ukraine for more than a month, Russia has gradually made progress against an opponent increasingly short of weapons and equipment. Russian forces have taken control of almost the entire city of Mariupol, stepped up their siege of the city of Severodonetsk in north-eastern Ukraine, and consolidated their ability to control Kherson.

Meanwhile, the US and its allies are also racing against time to supply Ukraine with a vast supply of weapons, which it desperately needs at this time if it is to hold back Russian forces.

Both sides are fighting fiercely, suffering heavy losses, and the battle in eastern Ukraine is developing into a bitter race, the milestone of which is the moment when western heavy weapons reach the armed forces.

According to analysts, as well as US and Western officials, Ukrainian units to the east could very well turn the tide of the battle if they hold out until that aid arrives.

Tanks and armor belonging to pro-Russian separatists move on the streets of Mariupol, eastern Ukraine, in mid-April photo: Reuters.

Tanks and armor belonging to pro-Russian separatists move on the streets of Mariupol in eastern Ukraine in mid-April.Photo: Reuters.

Meanwhile, Russian forces are under pressure to gain an overwhelming advantage before western arms reach Ukraine, and their arms and supplies supply chains face further difficulties.

The Russian military is still redeploying forces and restocking to replenish units depleted in the first weeks of hostilities as it slowly advances into eastern Ukraine.

Russia is also stepping up missile attacks on Ukraine’s fuel, ammunition and other critical infrastructure, including rail lines used to transport weapons. Increasing fuel shortages across Ukraine raised concerns about the ability to maintain frontline supplies.

“If we can’t provide Ukraine with what it needs to attack and destroy Russian artillery, missiles and troops before they complete the resupply process, this war is likely to drag on for a very long time,” said Ben Hodges, a former general who commanded the US military in Europe. “Then they will step up their forces and wait until the West is no longer interested in Ukraine.”

The United States and its allies place their trust in Ukraine’s military, which has demonstrated combat performance well beyond initial estimates. This marks an important strategic shift from the first weeks of the war, when US President Joe Biden’s administration offered to evacuate Ukrainian President Volydymyr Zelenskyy and planned to form a government-in-exile in Poland.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said the current US goal is to “weaken” Russia to the point where it “won’t be able to repeat what it did to Ukraine in the future.”

But to do so on the ground, Ukraine must receive heavy shipments of weapons, particularly long-range artillery, and Ukrainian soldiers must be trained in the use of new Western weapons systems. This process is ongoing but will take weeks.

The United States and its allies are accelerating delivery of promised weapons. But transporting it from Eastern Europe to Ukraine will require an unprecedented logistical effort at a time when key shipping routes are under constant attack from Russian missiles, Hodges said.

In recent days, the advance of Russian forces has slowed. Meanwhile, Ukraine is organizing a series of counterattacks to regain control of the territory, particularly around the northeastern city of Kharkov.

Western experts assess that Russia has not yet shown that it has overcome the shortcomings that have hampered efforts to control Kiev, including logistical problems or an ineffective command and control system. However, the Russian military has adapted its tactics to the flat, empty terrain of the Donbass region, giving it an advantage over the more flexible but poorly equipped Ukrainian army.

Russia’s slow advance appears to be a deliberate attempt to reduce casualties, drawing on lessons learned in the early weeks of the war, when Russian military convoys stretched for miles along narrow, shady roads and trees, becoming an easy ambush target for Ukrainian troops .

Now Russian forces are concentrating outside Ukrainian lines, shelling heavily targets, destroying resistance positions, and then moving in when Ukrainian troops are forced to retreat.

In some cases, after capturing the villages, the Russian army decided to leave, the Ukrainian forces simply returned to their place. With towns and villages along the more than 300-mile line constantly changing sides of control every day, it’s difficult to determine which side has the advantage on the battlefield, US officials say.

Russia’s tactics are putting great pressure on the Ukrainian army, which is also tired and exhausted after more than two months of continuous fighting on many fronts. Ukraine has not updated its casualty figures but admitted it is suffering heavy casualties.

“We are not superheroes, we also suffer casualties,” Oleksandr Danylyuk, the Ukrainian government’s defense and intelligence adviser, said in an interview.

The weapons Ukraine needs most right now are long-range heavy artillery so they can strike deep into Russian defenses. US Secretary of Defense Austin said during a Senate hearing May 3 that the 155mm howitzers Washington had promised Kyiv had reached Ukrainian forces and were being deployed.

The next US deliveries will include Humvee armored vehicles, M-113 infantry fighting vehicles, Mi-17 helicopters and hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition.

The military situation in Ukraine after 11 weeks of fighting.  Graphic: Washington Post.

The military situation in Ukraine after 11 weeks of fighting. Graphic: Washington Post.

According to Ukraine’s government adviser Danylyuk, the fighting is so fierce that Ukraine is very quickly “eating up” all the weapons it has, from ammunition to armored vehicles to drones and fuel. “Our needs are far from being met,” he said.

The Russian armed forces “switched to a much better strategy than before,” stressed Danylyuk. “They have started to see the Ukrainian armed forces as serious opponents, which is not good for us.”

According to Rob Lee, an expert at the Institute for Foreign Policy Studies in Pennsylvania, US, Russia can put a larger force at the service of the country by narrowing its target and focusing only on the Donbass and southeastern Ukraine. The Russian army, despite its losses in the first weeks of the war, retained its offensive capabilities. As Russia continues to consolidate and add forces, it will be able to gain more advantages, he noted.

But Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, said by intensifying the campaign in eastern Ukraine, Russia risks running out of resources. There is some speculation that President Vladimir Putin will issue a general mobilization order to add hundreds of thousands of new recruits. However, it will take Russia about a year to train and equip these recruits so they are ready for the battlefield, O’Brien commented.

American and Western officials stress that the coming weeks will be crucial to the war as both sides race against time to gain an advantage.

“Russia needs to get what it wants as soon as possible before Ukraine gets more important assets,” O’Brien said. “In the short term, Russian forces are superior in firepower, but eventually Ukraine can balance the situation if they have Western weapons.”

Vu Hoang (Corresponding Washington Post)