A difficult month for Ukraine

A steel worker moving a 155mm M795 artillery projectile during the manufacturing process at the Scranton Army Ammunition Plant in Scranton, Pennsylvania. — AP

SHORTLY after the US House of Representatives signed off its US$61bil deal of military support for Ukraine last month, social media feeds run by the government in Kyiv showed US-supplied Himars batteries firing 16 rockets in quick succession into nearby territory held by Russia.

The message was intended to be simple: after months in which Ukraine had found itself massively outgunned due to limited supplies, its military was finally counting on getting the firepower it needed to match Russia on the battlefield.

US President Joe Biden said later that steps were under way to make sure some of the military supplies now approved went immediately to the front line. But National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan acknowledged to reporters, it could take some time for Ukraine to “dig itself out of the hole” resulting from the six-month congressional delay in agreeing to the support.

Since then, Ukraine has indeed been hitting back at Russia – including, despite public US requests not to, at energy infrastructure. On the front lines themselves, however, the battle still appears to be going Russia’s way.

“Nato countries have not delivered their promises,” Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said early this month.

“The US spent months not agreeing a package for Ukraine, European allies have not delivered... And this has had a serious consequence on the battlefield. The lack of ammo has enabled Russians to push forward, lack of air defence has enabled more Russian missiles to hit targets, lack of deep strike capabilities has enabled Russia to concentrate forces.”

After Stoltenberg addressed Ukraine’s parliament earlier, Ukrainian MP Maryana Bezuhla said she approached him with a simple message: “You are only making promises while we are dying here.”

Such anger is understandable. Within Ukraine, media reports suggest it will be some time before significant elements of US hardware munitions reach the front line.

“May will be very difficult for us,” military expert Oleh Zhdanov had told Ukrainian website TSN.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a nightly address: “We need a significant speed-up in deliveries to strengthen the capabilities of our soldiers. We are really counting on the promptness of the US deliveries.”

A steel worker moving a 155mm M795 artillery projectile during the manufacturing process at the Scranton Army Ammunition Plant in Scranton, Pennsylvania. — APA steel worker moving a 155mm M795 artillery projectile during the manufacturing process at the Scranton Army Ammunition Plant in Scranton, Pennsylvania. — AP

He also told Western allies recently that Ukraine was now able to fire only one artillery shell for every 10 fired by Russian forces.

More than two years into the war, the simple truth is that Western weapons manufacturing remains at only a fraction of the capability needed to support Ukraine.

Until now it had been based on building much smaller numbers of weapons designed for the West’s previous conflicts, primarily in the Middle East. Those required precision strike munitions, but much less in the way of old-school artillery barrels and shells or cutting-edge air defences.

That, ironically, means Ukraine’s ability to strike deep within Russia continues to improve as new missile stocks arrive, including taking out aircraft and ships before they leave their bases. But it leaves them short of the crucial weapons they need to win the frontline battles on the ground.

Ukraine, the Pentagon and other backers are doing what they can to fix that, essentially using Ukrainian demand for shells and other key weapons to build up their manufacturing capability, something they now realise they would need in case of any future major war. But that will take time.

A scheme from the Czech Republic to buy a million artillery shells is reportedly behind schedule, while an EU pledge to deliver the same volume by March managed only half.

The United States hopes it will be manufacturing 100,000 shells a month by 2025 – but Russia was reportedly already receiving that many from North Korea alone in the last months of 2023.

Russia’s own shell manufacturing output, according to a Nato briefing for CNN, now stands at 250,000 shells a month, or three million a year. German armaments firm Rheinmetall is building factories that will produce another 200,000 shells a year, but not for at least two years.

The air defence missile picture is also messy. According to reports, Ukraine now has between five and 10 US-made Patriot air defence systems – considerably fewer than the 20 Ukraine says it wants – with the United States and Germany both working to cajole other European countries to send more.

Manufacturer Lockheed Martin is expanding its plants for Patriots, but last year made only 500 of the individual anti-aircraft rockets. That is planned to grow to 650, but likely not this year.

Lockheed also produces the Javelin anti-tank missile, stocks of which were almost exhausted in the early stages of the war. In September, it signed a deal to produce in Poland, hoping to increase production capacity to almost 4,000 annually – but again only by 2026.

That leaves Ukraine forced to lean more heavily on its new strike missiles – which it does have in growing amounts – to try to level the playing field by striking Russian artillery stockpiles and other targets in rear areas, as well as critical Kremlin infrastructure.

It is a brutally destructive game for both nations, and one that looks set to intensify.

Even before the April deal passed US Congress, US officials say they had secretly shipped a number of long-range Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) to Ukraine.

Sullivan said the preconditions for their use included that they only targeted the sovereign territory of Ukraine rather than deeper into Russia, an assertion that US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin pointedly failed to confirm in another press conference a few days later.

Storm Shadow cruise missiles were also a significant part of Britain’s £500mil support package to Ukraine, alongside other shorter-range strike and air defence missiles and four million rounds of small arms ammunition. Britain is also “reinvigorating” its artillery supply chain. Again, this will take time.

The last commodity of which Ukraine risks running out is personnel, with a recruitment campaign currently under way to reduce its need to conscript up to half a million further fighters.

That will be a lot harder if Ukrainians come to believe that they are losing – and as in almost every other major era-defining conflict, that means starting to visibly win the battle for supplies. — Reuters

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