Doug Klain for Foreign Policy: Russia Is Betting on Battlefield Gains

2024-03-15 | Expert publications, Military assistance

By , a policy analyst at Razom for Ukraine and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.

As Ukrainian forces brace for a new Russian offensive, Kyiv urgently needs supplemental military aid and ammunition.

The U.S. Congress has delayed supplemental assistance to Ukraine for seven months, and the lack of urgency is resulting in dire new realities on the battlefield. With Ukrainian forces fortifying the front line ahead of a new Russian offensive expected in the spring or early summer, a failure to swiftly resupply Ukraine’s troops with ammunition could result in Russia’s greatest gains since the early days of the full-scale invasion.

Policymakers in Washington have mostly accepted that Congress won’t pass a bill that includes new aid to Ukraine until April at best, once another budget deadline is addressed. This timeline is entirely the choice of U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson, who has repeatedly given new excuses for dithering on bringing an aid package—which has already passed the Senate—to a vote. The delay has in no small part contributed to Russia gaining the advantage on the battlefield. If Ukraine is to stop Russia from making significant gains in this coming offensive, it urgently needs fresh military assistance.

Because the United States stopped delivering new aid to Ukraine last December and Kyiv’s European partners have also struggled to provide sufficient military assistance, Russia now fires more than five artillery shells for every one that is fired by Ukraine, an advantage that continues to grow. Ukraine’s air defenses intercepted just two-thirds of Russian missiles and drones during a recent attack, reflecting declining effectiveness. Ukrainian deaths resulting from ammunition and air defense shortages are getting worse every day.

Although some policymakers regard the conflict as frozen, Russia wants to get on the move and resume its conquest of Ukraine—and it may make that happen. Moscow’s initial invasion in February 2022 was stymied by poor preparation and Ukrainian determination, but its troops have learned valuable lessons and are not the same fighting force as two years ago. Russia withstood Ukraine’s 2023 counteroffensive and has worked to set the conditions for a potential breakthrough this year.

While Ukrainian forces are fortifying their positions and otherwise readying themselves for an offensive, they have now spent months with limited ammunition and military support. They have not prepared to the same extent that Russia had for Ukraine’s counteroffensive last year. Recent operations, especially in the city of Avdiivka, have reportedly drained Russia’s supply of armored vehicles and could limit Moscow’s ability to move quickly and capture territory if its forces break through Ukrainian lines. Still, without fresh aid, and especially ammunition, battlefield conditions are likely to favor Russia.

Although Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky won’t come out and say it for fear of jeopardizing U.S. aid, many Ukrainians are concerned the United States is turning its back on them. Officials in Kyiv worry that without significant increases in ammunition supplies, Russia will make significant gains by the summer. Their best hope is to hold the line as long as possible while U.S. lawmakers finish deliberating whether to resume helping. Russian President Vladimir Putin isn’t waiting for Washington’s timeline.

Ukraine needs immediate assistance to resupply and prepare for coming Russian offensives. The best way to prevent Moscow from making meaningful gains in the months ahead is for the U.S. House of Representatives to pass the $61 billion supplemental aid package, or something similar. This would not only help Ukraine, but it would also inject tens of billions of dollars into revitalizing the U.S. defense industrial base, creating new jobs, and enhancing U.S. security. The next best options are for the White House to tap further into the $4.2 billion in Presidential Drawdown Authority-accessible funds it has in reserve in case supplemental aid fails altogether.

In Europe, the Czech Republic-proposed plan to source 800,000 artillery shells from the global market is expected to move forward, with ammunition being delivered to Ukraine in the “foreseeable future,” according to Ukraine’s foreign minister. (France recently removed its objection to using EU funds to purchase non-European arms.) This will be another important asset for Ukraine’s defense this year. But Ukrainian officials are requesting up to 250,000 artillery shells per month, meaning that this latest infusion of shells may only resupply Ukraine’s forces for three months without serious rationing.

The next few months will be critical to Ukraine’s defense, and its partners need to get serious about long-term support that can help Kyiv set the conditions for victory and start working to match Moscow’s expanding arsenal. While the U.S. House is deliberating, Russia is rearming. It has received more than 3 million artillery shells from North Korea, more than 400 ballistic missiles from Iran, and built factories to churn out its own kamikaze drones. It is also on track to produce millions of its own artillery shells per year.

Russia has shifted to a wartime economy. The conflict has spurred massive demand for military goods within the country. The exodus of nearly 1 million Russians since the full-scale invasion has led to a labor shortage, causing wages to rise and unemployment to fall. The Kremlin is spending 30 percent of its budget on the military, injecting significant money into the economy to keep things afloat. Russia is betting that it will make significant gains on the battlefield before it succumbs to hyperinflation and unsustainable spending. This week, Putin said it would be “ridiculous” to consider peace talks when Ukraine has an ammunition deficit and the prospect of a Russian breakthrough is on the horizon.

Amid other global developments, the United States has not been able to fully meet Ukraine’s needs. After the Oct. 7, 2023, Hamas attacks against Israel, the United States diverted artillery shells intended for Ukraine to Israel because there weren’t enough to adequately supply both countries at the same time. Washington is working to revitalize its own defense industrial base; should the supplemental aid bill pass the House, it will fuel new investments into restarting important production lines. Even then, the U.S. goal is to produce up to 100,000 artillery shells per month by the end of 2025—significantly below the 250,000 per month already produced by Russia.

Eastern European leaders such as Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis have long advocated for a “whatever victory takes” approach, and their governments deliver aid to Ukraine commensurate with that vision. More European leaders are catching up, recognizing the need to dramatically boost their own defense production. The EU’s top defense production official announced that the bloc now has the capacity to produce 1 million artillery shells per year, but Europe has delivered only one-third of the 1 million shells it promised to Ukraine by this spring.

The EU’s new Defense Industrial Strategy, the first of its kind, is a promising roadmap to revitalizing Europe’s production capacities, including a pledge to include Ukraine in joint procurement and an endorsement of using frozen Russian assets to aid Ukraine militarily. With increasing fears that the United States could step back from Ukraine—especially if former U.S. President Donald Trump wins the U.S. presidential election in November—European leaders are gaining a stark understanding of the urgent need to revamp their defense production.

By delaying aid for months and giving Russia time to fortify the territory it occupies, Western partners did not set Ukraine up for success with last year’s counteroffensive. Ukraine needs a new strategic vision as it refreshes military leadership and digs in to resist the coming Russian offensive. This should be a year for Ukraine to survive, reconstitute, and set the conditions for a successful breakthrough of Russian lines in 2025. But that can only happen if Kyiv receives the aid it so urgently needs. If Russian forces exploit the West’s failure to resupply Ukrainian forces, Russian forces may soon be back on the march, reconquering cities liberated by Ukraine in 2022.

Ukrainian troops have shown that they can win when they have the tools to do so. But if Ukraine is kept on a starvation diet as support falters in the West, Russian forces may soon see their best gains in the conflict since 2022. Ukraine’s victory is in the strategic and moral interests of the United States and Europe, and it’s time for policymakers to treat it that way.

Originally published on Foreign Policy.

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