Featured Security & defence Blog

Ukraine since the House vote on 19 April.

8 ukraine paulabronstein009
Written by Adrian Hill

Former paratrooper and diplomat Adrian Hill brings us up to date on the balance of arms in the Ukraine war and on the likelihood that Ukraine may be allowed to use new weapons to target military sites inside Russia

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Chairman of the US Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Mark Warner, announced on 21 April that US military aid to Ukraine, including long-range ATACMS missiles, will be in transit to Ukraine “by the end of the week” if the Senate passes the supplemental appropriations bill on 23 April and US President Joe Biden signs it by 24 April.

In an interview with CBS News on the same day Warner revealed that the Biden administration has been prepared to provide long-range ATACMS to Ukraine, as specified in the bill, for the past several months. (There is a caveat, more below.) Warner emphasised the extensive battlefield impact that Ukrainian forces have achieved using US-provided military assistance, how Ukrainian forces have been able to destroy “87 percent of Russian pre-existing ground forces” (with reference to Russia’s pre-full-scale invasion professional force), 67 percent of Russian tanks, and 32 percent of Russian armoured personnel carriers (APCs) for the past two years with less than 3 percent of the US defence budget and military aid from the US and Europe.

The US Senate passed the bill on the evening of 23 April. President Joe Biden signed the  Ukraine supplemental appropriations bill next day. That will provide roughly $60 billions of assistance to Ukraine. Biden emphasized the need to deliver military assistance to Ukraine as quickly as possible.

The Pentagon announced that the first tranche of US military assistance from this bill is worth $1 billion and includes: RIM-7 and AIM-9M air defence missiles; Stinger anti-aircraft missiles; HIMARS ammunition; 60mm mortar rounds; 105mm and 155mm artillery shells; Bradley infantry fighting vehicles; High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWVs or Humvees); Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles (MRAPs); Tube-Launched, Optically-Tracked, Wire-Guided (TOW) missiles; Javelin and AT-4 anti-armour systems; precision aerial munitions; and other equipment and transport vehicles.

On the Battlefield

Russian forces have recently intensified offensive operations east of Chasiv Yar and northwest of Avdiivka in Donetsk Oblast in an effort to take advantage of the limited window before US security assistance arrives in Ukraine. The bill’s relatively quick passage through the US Senate has eliminated a potential source of delay, thus US supplies may arrive at the frontline in Ukraine within the next few weeks ahead of Russian expectations. The battlefield situation will continue to degrade until Ukrainian forces can receive and use enough military equipment at scale, therefore Ukrainian forces may still struggle to defend against Russian pushes near Chasiv Yar and northwest of Avdiivka in the near term.

The blame for this dire situation lies mostly with Donald Trump. David Cameron claims that his visit to Trump helped break the stand off. Perhaps he did. American officials also say that Trump was shown the intelligence – about the dwindling Ukrainian supplies, or his dealings with Putin, or both?

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) in Washington DC report that some arms in the package had been stockpiled close to Ukraine and really were handed over within hours but it will take time before the Ukrainians receive everything they have been waiting for during six long months. The United States, they also report, provided an unspecified number of long-range ATACMS missiles to Ukraine in March 2024, some of which Ukraine has already used to strike Russian targets in deep rear areas. Strikes on targets in occupied Crimea are acceptable to the Biden administration but targets inside Russia itself are not. ISW quite rightly say this rule is absurd. The Biden administration are gifting the Russians a safe haven where they can assemble forces and ammunition dumps, from where they can attack a huge chunk of Ukraine with missiles and glide bombs while flying over Russia. Anthony Blinken has tried to change Biden’s mind. There was a media flurry on the 30 May when officials tried to make out that the policy had changed for the Kharkiv region. It hasn’t.

This blinkered approach reminds of the dithering during the Vietnam War and the US Senate’s Cooper-Church Amendment in particular. Just as the South Vietnamese launched the largest airmobile attack in history onto the Ho Chi Minh Trails through Laos early in January 1971 their American advisers were forbidden to cross the border. The rule put shot down aircrew outside the law and the Americans lost 450 helicopters during several weeks of heavy fighting. I wrote my impressions from this battle as a story, mostly faction, because the people, events and conversations were real. I just changed names to protect the characters – including myself! South Vietnam’s paratroopers, rangers and soldiers were just as worthy of support as the Ukrainians but no publisher would take the risk on grounds of political bias and fear of commercial execution by mass media.

As the late David Cornwell alias John le Carre warned me at the time – ‘ Adrian, it’s the first war America has lost since we burned the White House and they’ll want their own witnesses.’

NATO

Sweden’s Defence Minister Pal Jonson confirmed in response to a media question on 26 May that Sweden supports Ukraine’s right under international law to defend itself through combat operations against Russian territory so long as these operations comply with international laws on combat.

On the 27 May NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly adopted a declaration calling for NATO states to support Ukraine’s “international right” to defend itself by lifting “some restrictions” on Ukraine’s use of Western weapons to strike Russian territory. The declaration also calls for member states to accelerate their deliveries of critical weapons to Ukraine. More than 200 representatives of NATO member states supported the declaration. There are 268 voting members and 61 non-voting associate members, 12 of whom represent Ukraine. Some NATO states, including the UK, already have lifted such restrictions on weapons they provide to Ukraine, but not enough Western states have done so to allow Ukraine to challenge Russia’s sanctuary from which it freely conducts airstrikes or launches ground operations against Ukraine.

French President Emmanuel Macron stated on the 28 May at a joint press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz that France supports Ukraine’s use of French-provided weapons to strike Russian “military sites from which missiles are fired” and other Russian “military sites from which Ukraine is attacked” in Russian territory. Macron noted that Ukraine should not strike “other military” or civilian targets in Russia, likely referring to Russian sites that are not actively involved in attacks on Ukraine. Scholz stated at the press conference that Germany recognizes Ukraine’s right to defend itself against Russian strikes under international law as long as “regulations” on Ukraine’s use of Western-provided weapons are “within the framework of international law.” Scholz’s recognition of Ukraine’s right to strike military targets on Russian territory is notable as it defines the issue in terms of international legal norms. That does not reflect a change in Germany’s position against providing Ukraine with long-range Taurus missiles or allowing Ukraine to strike military targets in Russia with German-provided weapons. But since that statement Scholz has gone further and accepts that Ukraine must be allowed to hit back at targets inside Russia. Let’s see if he provides the means to do so.

Advisor to the Head of the Ukrainian President’s Office, Mykhaylo Podolyak, confirmed that the new supply of US military aid has started arriving on the frontline but that it will take “weeks” for the gradual increase in US military aid to reach “critical volumes.” ISW  reports that Podolyak told Bloomberg in an article published on the 29 May that Russian forces currently have the “absolute advantage” in shells and missiles and that Russian forces will continue to try to advance along the frontline presumably to take advantage of the time before US military assistance arrives in sufficient quantities at the front. He warned that Russia may be trying to force Ukraine and its allies to freeze the current frontline — a situation that ISW has long assessed would be advantageous to Russia by giving the Russian military time to recover, reform and prepare for renewed aggression against Ukraine. Additional Western military assistance will also likely take time to reach the frontlines and to be properly integrated into Ukrainian frontline troop formations. The Czech Prime Minister, Petr Fiala, announced on the 28 May that the first “tens of thousands” of 155mm artillery ammunition sourced through the Czech-led initiative for Ukraine will arrive in Ukraine within “days.”

On the 29 May Sweden announced its sixteenth and largest military aid package to Ukraine, worth about 1.25 billion US dollars. The Swedish Ministry of Defense reported that the package includes ASC 890 Airborne Surveillance and Control aircraft (the Swedish version of an airborne early warning and control [AWACS] airborne radar system) and RB 99-AMRAAM medium-range air-to-air missiles (that are also modified to be ground-to-air) to strengthen Ukraine’s air defence, plus additional 155mm artillery ammunition and “the entire Swedish stock” of Pansarbandvagn 302 armoured vehicles among other provisions.

Kharkiv

Presently the main victims are anyone who lives near Kharkiv City. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov signalled Russia’s intent for such an operation on 19 April, claiming that Kharkiv City “plays an important role” in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s idea of establishing a demilitarized “sanitary zone” in Ukraine to supposedly protect Russian border settlements from Ukrainian strikes and tube artillery. Russia’s envisioned “sanitary zone” could represent a range of on-the-ground conditions from the seizure of Kharkiv City and the surrounding areas to the creation of an uninhabitable, razed “no man’s land” that neither side controls. On the 22 April the Kremlin began a concerted air and information operation to attack towards the city, thereby convince Ukrainians to flee and displace millions of Ukrainians ahead of a possible future Russian offensive operation against the city or elsewhere in Ukraine. Russia is intensifying strike and information operations to exploit ongoing constraints on Ukrainian air defences and heightened tensions in Ukraine during most likely a relatively brief window before the anticipated arrival of US military assistance to frontline areas.

What is the state of Russia’s Ground Forces?

Ankur Narayan, Political-Military Counsellor at Britain’s delegation to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) – I was involved in setting it up with the neutrals during the 1970s – said that Russia has lost 465,000 troops killed or wounded during 825 days of war. That’s roughly 1,000 killed and wounded a day. He also said that Russia is spending 40% of the government’s budget on the war and armed forces, that’s about 6% of Russia’s GNP.

ISW previously assessed that a Russian offensive operation aimed at seizing Kharkiv City would be an extremely ambitious undertaking that would pose significant challenges to Russian forces. At the present time the Russians have crossed the Ukrainian frontier in two main though shallow attacks. However, so far the Russians appear to be busy demolishing bridges as though constructing a defensive zone although they might push forward until within artillery range of Kharkiv City. Their total force assembled for these attacks is 35,000 strong while their estimate for the force needed to take Kharkiv City was 300,000 at least. Which raises the possibility that the present attacks may also serve as a feint to draw Ukraine’s reserves away from somewhere else such as Donetsk.

The pace of Russian offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast appears to have slowed over the last weeks and the pattern of Russian offensive activity in this area is consistent with ISW’s assessment that Russian forces are prioritizing the creation of a “buffer zone” in the international border area over any deeper penetration of Kharkiv Oblast. Even Vladimir Putin claims that the task is creating a buffer zone! Several Ukrainian military officials reported on 14 May that they believe the situation in Kharkiv Oblast is slowly stabilizing — as additional Ukrainian units deployed to the area and began defending against Russian advances. Russian and Ukrainian sources also reported that Russian forces are using new tactics in this engagement — smaller assault groups of no more than five people penetrate Ukrainian positions before merging with other small assault groups to form into a larger strike group. Drone footage purportedly from Vovchansk shows Russian infantry operating within the settlement in small squad-sized assault groups, consistent with Ukrainian reports.

Further to the east Russian forces have yet to make significant tactical gains near Chasiv Yar after advancing up to the eastern outskirts of the settlement in early April but have recently made significant tactical gains northwest of Avdiivka and marginal advances southwest of Donetsk City. Despite mixed and limited tactical success in these directions, Russian forces will likely intensify ongoing offensive operations in the coming weeks to exploit Ukrainian supply constraints ahead of the expected arrival of US arms and ammunition.

Let’s go back to the Russia losses listed by Senator Mark Warner during that interview with CBS News.

According to ISW ‘ recent satellite imagery of depleted Russian military vehicle and weapon storage facilities indicates that Russia is currently sustaining its war effort largely by pulling replacements from storage rather than by manufacturing new vehicles and certain weapons at scale. Newsweek reported on the 8 May that a social media source tracking Russian military depots stated that satellite imagery indicates that Russia’s vehicle stores have significantly decreased from pre-war levels by nearly 32 percent from 15,152 in 2021 to 10,389 as of May 2024. The military depot tracker observed that Russia has pulled the most from its stores of multipurpose armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs), which are down from 2,527 pre-war to 922 remaining; BMD airborne amphibious tracked infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), which are down from 637 pre-war to 244 remaining; and BTR-50 armoured personnel carriers (APCs), down from 125 pre-war to 52 remaining. The military depot tracker noted that Russia no longer has newer model BTR-60s, 70s, and 80s (more modern APCs) in storage and that only 2,605 remain — likely referring to vehicles currently fielded — from its pre-war stocks of 3,313. The military depot tracker noted that Russia is currently fielding 1,000 – 2,000 of its remaining MT-LBs (amphibious IFVs) in Ukraine. Another open-source account on X (formerly Twitter) cited satellite imagery dated 27 May 2020 and 26 March 2024 and concluded that Russia has pulled roughly 60 percent of its artillery systems at an unspecified towed artillery storage base, reportedly one of Russia’s largest. The source reported that about half of the remaining artillery systems at this base are likely unusable due to degradation while in storage and because many of the remaining systems are Second World War era artillery systems incompatible with modern ammunition.’

Given the above the Russian military command may have to reconsider its objectives for its summer 2024 offensive effort against much better equipped and manned Ukrainian forces. To quote Ankur Narayan again – “President Putin is now over two years into a war he thought would take 3 days. He is no closer to his goal of subjugating Ukraine. Instead, Russia has suffered nearly half a million casualties, and lost a great proportion of its land and sea forces. Economists do not need to be reminded about sunk cost fallacy. Seen objectively, the numbers point to a terrible loss for a country like Russia – in Russian lives, materiel and credibility.

There is a simple way to minimise human losses. Russia chose to start this war. Russia can choose to end it. Ukraine has the right to defend itself. We will continue to stand resolutely with Ukraine. Russia should respect the UN Charter, end its war, and withdraw all of its forces from all of Ukraine.”

Continued timely US and Western military assistance, particularly the provision of air defence systems and missiles, will be critical to Ukraine’s defence, starting with Kharkiv City and maybe also Kiev again. There is still the hope of some F 16 fighters to challenge Russia’s present air supremacy over large parts of Ukraine and the luxury of launching stand-off missiles and glide-bombs from a safe distance over Russia. Though it’s proved quicker to produce trained pilots than the actual fighters.

One can but remind our campaigning though rather sheltered politicians that it’s wiser to become Ukraine’s arms factory while rebuilding our own forces than dabbling with conscription. Basil Liddell-Hart won that debate in 1950 although it took a decade to end National Service and switch to all volunteer professionals. Vietnam persuaded the Americans follow and recruit a volunteer force a decade after us. Sort out the accommodation and married quarters, raise the pay, you might be surprised what that does for recruiting. There’s an old adage – one volunteer is worth ten pressed men. Frederick the Great and Napoleon both claimed that ratio is one to twenty.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

About the author

Adrian Hill