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Ukraine: Time for the West to make up its mind

Jamie Dettmer is Opinion Editor at POLITICO Europe

Asked recently why international powers that lined up on the side of the White Army in Russia’s barbaric civil war failed to affect the outcome, military historian Antony Beevor noted the West “couldn’t make up their minds” — the international backers of the Bolsheviks’ opponents were divided and hesitant.

Another key factor in the defeat of the Cossacks and the White Armies in the south of Russia was the difficulty in resupplying them. “The Reds had a huge advantage with internal lines [of supply],” Beevor told the BBC’s History magazine.  

That’s what saved the Bolsheviks in late 1919 — to the frustration of Britain’s then Secretary of State for War Winston Churchill. “I can’t believe this. The Reds were in full retreat, and now suddenly they seem to be beating the Whites on every front. What’s happened?” an exasperated Churchill noted in a memo.  

Today, we seem to be on the precipice of a similar turn — and for much of the same reasons. 

Russian forces aren’t defeating Ukrainians on every front, but they’re now pursuing a military campaign that favors them — the one many Western military strategists reckoned they’d fight before their launch of a much broader and overly ambitious offensive they were ill-prepared to wage. Now, focused on expanding territory they control in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, and consolidating a land bridge between the Ukrainian mainland and Crimea, Russian forces are slowly notching up incremental gains.   

Ukrainians today have advantages that the fractious White Army didn’t. They’re united and defending home turf, and are still buoyed by their successful and improvised defense of Kyiv, which relied on small-scale commando counterattacks and agile insurgency tactics that demoralized already under-motivated Russian troops.  

But the country’s confidence is starting to erode.   

There’s a sense that Russia is managing a significant military turnaround. The conflict has evolved into a war of attrition being fought with easier supply lines for Russian forces; Moscow’s making steady gains on the frontline — albeit slowly; and Western sanctions are having little effect in boosting domestic dissent to the war in Russia. 

Ukraine’s also broke, and it’s now suffering mounting casualties at roughly the same rate as Russia, according to Western officials. In the past week, Ukrainian officials admitted that around 150 Ukrainian soldiers are being killed in fighting every day in the Donbas, and 800 or so are wounded. 

They can be replaced — Ukraine isn’t short of patriotic substitutes — but many of the casualties are experienced combatants. And Ukrainian commanders I spoke to this weekend, on the condition of anonymity, concede that morale is starting to sag and fatigue — as well as shell shock — is setting in, largely thanks to Russia’s intensive artillery bombardments, which can strike from around 10 times the 25-kilometer distance than Ukraine can manage. 

If this conflict is to be prevented from settling into a war of attrition favoring Russia — one that risks sapping European public and political support for Ukraine — Kyiv’s Western allies are going to have to up the ante and supply many more long-range weapons systems to equalize the battlefield, say Ukrainian commanders on the ground. Much as they did by supplying anti-tank missiles soon after Russia’s invasion, which helped repel the Russian armored columns menacing Kyiv. 

Ukrainians have available 152/155-millimeter artillery and Grad multiple-launch rocket systems — no match for Russia’s Iskander tactical ballistic missiles, which can be launched nearly 300 kilometers away from their target, or their BM-30 Smerch multiple-rocket launchers and Soviet-era Tochka tactical ballistic missiles, which can be fired from over twice the distance Ukrainians can currently reach. 

This month, the United Kingdom and the United States agreed to supply some of the weapons systems Ukrainians desperately need. Britain will supply M270 multiple-launch rocket systems, which can fire 12 missiles in under one minute with a range of 80 kilometers, and Washington will send their equivalent HIMARS. 

These artillery systems will undoubtedly boost Ukrainian defenses, but their actual impact will depend on the number provided, the amount of ammunition supplied and how quickly Ukrainians can be trained in their use, according to Sam Cranny-Evans of the Royal United Services Institute. 

And Ukrainian commanders are already disappointed in the number of systems currently being earmarked — three from the U.K. and four from the U.S.  

They say this isn’t sufficient, that many more are needed to hold the Russians, let alone push them back. They’re also frustrated at having to agree to a Western condition on their use — namely, that they mustn’t be used to target across the Russian border, depriving Ukraine of the opportunity to disrupt Russian logistics, in much the same way Moscow has started targeting depots in Ukraine that house Western-supplied materiel.  

This is like fighting with one hand tied behind your back, they fume.  

A week ago, Russia targeted tanks that had been sent in from Eastern Europe and parked in Kyiv, as well as a train repair depot in the city — the first time in over a month that the Ukrainian capital was struck. And Russian President Vladimir Putin and his aides, including Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, have warned of more logistics-targeting hits, including “objects that we haven’t yet struck,” in the event of Western deliveries of long-range rocket systems. 

Such threats are behind the West’s vacillation on what to supply and when, and on the rules of engagement, some officials admit. 

But Ben Hodges, a former commander of the U.S. army in Europe, has complained that too much time is being lost because of internal debates among Western allies on weapons supplies. He tweeted Saturday: “If we are going to help Ukraine ‘win,’ then quit spooning out support. Instead push it, in anticipation of requirements over the next months.” 

“I’m tired of hearing excuses about how long it takes to train soldiers. Start f’ing training them now. They’ll get it!”   

But for that to happen, Western powers will finally have to make up their minds and act quickly — or doom Ukraine to a long war of attrition that’s to Russia’s advantage. 

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