As the war in Ukraine enters a new phase, NATO countries have gradually stepped up their arms supply to Kyiv. In doing so, Western nations are quietly crossing the purely defensive threshold set by leaders at the start of the crisis.
But the question remains whether the gradual escalation in arms deliveries can avert a Russian response and turn the tide on the battlefield, where Moscow is seeking a more conventional military war in eastern Donbass.
“The question will be to what extent the West moves into offensive weaponry,” said Phil Osborn, Britain’s former head of defense intelligence, “and the absolute importance of ensuring that the supply of critical military equipment is maintained and increased”.
The Ukrainian army spent the first six weeks of the war trying to repel invading Russian armored columns with light infantry using anti-tank bazookas. Bad Russian tactics and Ukrainian determination successfully forced the overwhelmed attackers to abandon their attacks on kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy in the northeast.
But Ukraine now faces Russian forces to the east and south that have made more defensible gains and are better entrenched.
In the past 24 hours, it emerged that the Czech Republic had sent a dozen Soviet-designed T-72 tanks, as well as howitzer artillery pieces and BMP-1 armored vehicles, a significant change in the direction of the supply of “offensive weapons” that Western politicians had insisted they were not prepared to do.
That in itself is not enough to do more than dent the 94 tanks that Ukraine estimates, according to Oryx researchers, to have lost in the fighting so far – but there is persistent speculation that Poland could save 100 more, now it has reached a separate level. agreement on Tuesday to buy 250 American Abrams tanks for $4.75 billion.
The UK is considering sending non-lethal armored vehicles to Ukraine for patrol and reconnaissance work, according to a Times article.
The next phase of the war – which could still be decisive – is set to unfold in Donbass next month as Russian forces seek to capture Mariupol, create a land bridge to Crimea, expand the occupation zone in the self-proclaimed republics. in Donetsk and Luhansk – and perhaps encircle the main Ukrainian fighting force opposing it.
It is a struggle that will take place during the month of April. Western intelligence officials believe Russian President Vladimir Putin will want a ‘heralded success’ for the country’s traditional Victory Day parade on May 9, emphasizing what the West is prepared to do. provide now.
A handful or two of Czech tanks, or the four Bushmaster armored vehicles sent by Australia, won’t make much difference. “If we had already gotten what we needed – all those planes, tanks, artillery, anti-missile and anti-ship weapons – we could have saved thousands of people,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said earlier. this week.
The United States announced on Wednesday that it would send an additional $100 million worth of Javelin anti-tank missiles, in addition to $300 million worth of equipment on Friday, which includes two new sets of weapons, designed to help Ukrainian forces better attack the Russians.
Friday’s batch included “laser-guided rocket systems” thought by experts to refer to APKWS rockets. These are traditionally mounted on planes – and possibly drones – but can be used on the ground and could in this case help counter Russia’s dominance in heavy artillery, which has claimed so many Ukrainian casualties.
A second item in Friday’s package was 10 Switchblade 600 combat drones, which have a range of 90 km and can fly for 40 minutes, and carry the same anti-tank warhead as the Javelin anti-tank weapon – a replacement for the lost Turkish TB2 drones. , giving Ukraine more options on the battlefield.
Nick Reynolds, a ground warfare expert at Rusi, said he thinks Switchblade drones are “an urgent need” because they could help “hit Russian command nodes, electronic warfare vehicles, logistics centers , artillery and air defense systems in depth” – reaching deep behind the front line in the Donbass.
The growing supply will certainly help Ukraine fight off the second phase of the Russian attack, but it’s likely not until late April that a clearer picture will emerge of the revised military balance. Without more tanks, in particular, it is not clear that Ukraine can relieve the besieged Mariupol.
Meanwhile, the West’s goals become less clear. Is the goal to allow Ukraine to coerce the Kremlin into peace talks – or to try to inflict a heavier defeat that risks provoking an unpredictable Russian president?
A Western official warned on Wednesday that it would be “fundamentally different” to try to force Russian forces out of the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk and Crimea because of “the way Russia would defend those interests”.