The West has no war goal for the fighting in Ukraine as the conflict goes into its second year.
So far, the policy has been “to make sure Ukraine doesn’t lose” but not to ensure it wins. The West has been increasingly supplying Ukraine with more and more powerful weapons, but always in insufficient amounts and always with a delay that does not change the tide of the conflict to Kyiv’s advantage.
In the most glaring example, Western nations rushed to pledge Ukraine over 460 of the modern Germany-made Leopard 2 main battle tanks (MBTs) following a Ramstein meeting on January 22. At least 42 of these were supposed to be on the field by March; however, only two have arrived from Poland, which is promising to send another 10 this month.
The other deliveries have been beset by delays. Another four Canadian tanks are in Poland where Ukrainian tank crews are being trained to use them, but German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius said this month that Kyiv should “expect more delays” regarding the delivery of more tanks. Other countries like Denmark and the Netherlands have reneged on earlier pledges to send tanks and will now send money instead. The overall count of the number of tanks pledged has fallen to 150, according to bne IntelliNews’ calculations. The US said earlier this month that the promised US-made Abrams tanks will not arrive for at least one and a half years.
Even more poignant is Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s call for the West to send fighter planes, including the US-made F-15 combat jet. The West has flatly ruled that out, although several countries have begun training Ukrainian pilots in their use.
The token presence of two Leopard 2 MBTs on the battlefield will make no difference to the war effort at all. Zelenskiy has said that Ukraine needs 3-4 battalions of tanks to make progress in the fight – all of the 400-plus tanks that were initially promised. The US fighter jets would make an even bigger difference to the fight, as Russia has failed to capture the airspace over Ukraine, but without fighters Ukraine cannot follow through on this success. Those jets are not on their way and are unlikely to even be promised unless Ukraine looks like it is going to lose the war to Russia.
But the biggest supply problem is Kyiv is running low on crucial 155mm artillery shells – the workhorse of the military effort for both sides. As bne IntelliNews reported, the US sent Ukraine one million of these shells at the start of the war but only produces around 100,000 a year. Zelenskiy has recently called for a second million shells to be sent to Ukraine, but it is unclear where they will come from, as the US has already depleted its surplus stocks. The US and Germany have promised to invest in expanded production, but the amounts dedicated are insufficient to see the ten-fold increase in production needed, and Western powers remain reluctant to invest the billions of dollars required to achieve the necessary increase in production. In the meantime, the West is left trying to scrounge together fresh supplies from US allies with shell production in countries such as South Korea.
US cold feet
As the costs of the war – both in human lives and dollar bills – continue to mount with no end in sight, Western support for the war is beginning to crack, according to a report by Politico on March 13. While publicly the Biden administration is sticking with its “stand by Ukraine for as long as it takes” policy, more and more questions are being raised asking when and how the war will end.
“The administration doesn’t have a clear policy objective and a clear goal. Is it to drag this thing out, which is precisely what Vladimir Putin wants?” Michael McCaul, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said as cited by Politico. “Is it to just give them enough to survive and not to win? I don’t see a policy for victory right now, and if we don’t have that, then what are we doing?”
Politico interviewed ten senior US officials, lawmakers and experts, who highlighted that new points of tension are emerging: the sabotage of a natural gas pipeline on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean; the brutal, draining defence of a strategically unimportant Ukrainian city; and a plan to fight for a region where Russian forces have been entrenched for nearly a decade and are now deeply dug in.
Multiple administration officials have begun worrying that Ukraine is expending so much manpower and ammunition in Bakhmut that it could sap their ability to mount a major counter-offensive in the spring, Politico reports.
“I certainly don’t want to discount the tremendous work that the Ukrainian soldiers and leaders have put into defending Bakhmut – but I think it’s more of a symbolic value than it is a strategic and operational value,” said Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, as cited by Politico
War of attrition
With no end to the war in sight, the fighting has turned into a war of attrition. The attention is focused on Bakhmut, but as bne IntelliNews has argued earlier, the goal of the Wagner PMC there is not to take the town per se but simply wear the Ukrainian forces down and use up Kyiv's resources that could have otherwise been used in a mooted spring counter-offensive that is looking increasingly unlikely to happen, due to the dwindling resources.
Wagner is throwing wave after wave of former convicts conscripted into the Wagner units into the fight with horrific casualty rate. Some five Russian soldiers are killed for every one Ukrainian – an unsustainable mortality rate even with Russia’s three-to-one population advantage. In an underreported story, bne IntelliNews correspondents on the front line in Bakhmut report that Russia is using tanks in battle “in large numbers”, so those absent Leopards are sorely missed.
It seems that Russia doesn’t care about the high casualty count, as Ukraine has deployed some of its best forces to hold Bakhmut and while the Russian body count is higher, it is the quality of the Ukrainian troops dying that really counts.
Ukraine went into the war with some 250,000 battle-hardened veterans who had been fighting the Kremlin-backed separatists in the Donbas for eight years already before the Russian invasion. And in war combat experience counts for a lot more than numbers.
The quality of Ukraine’s military force, once considered a substantial advantage over Russia, has been degraded by a year of casualties that have taken many of the most experienced fighters off the battlefield, killed or injured, according to a report in the Washington Post this week.
The actual casualty figures on both sides is a closely guarded secret, but according to expert estimates Ukraine could have lost as many as 120,000 of its best fighters, whereas Russia has lost an estimated 150,000-200,000 or more, but these are largely inexperienced and low-quality conscripts. And following the partial mobilisation that started on September 21, it has another approximately 150,000 conscripts in reserve.
At the same time, Ukraine is running out of ammunition, as highlighted in a recent dispatch by bne IntelliNews from the outskirts of Bakhmut, the epicentre of the fighting. The battle for the relatively strategically insignificant city has dragged on for nine months with little progress.
Russian forces were undermanned until the summer, but the retreat from Kherson in September released some 20-30 battalion tactical groups (BTGs) that were locked up in the besieged city – amongst Russia’s best troops – and also shortened the front line, allowing Russia to improve the density of forces defending the front line, who have since dug in in multi-layer defensive lines.
In another underreported story, Ukraine is also conscripting men to fill its ranks. bne IntelliNews' correspondent in Kyiv reports that army recruiters are stopping men in the metro and handing them draft papers. Hundreds of thousand Ukrainians rushed to volunteer in the early days of the war, but the majority of those more reluctant to fight are being conscripted now and are less willing to fight, and are less effective as a result. Men of military age have been banned from leaving the country since the start of the war and those that fled and failed to return have been threatened with prosecution unless they do come back. But as bne IntelliNews reported, the vast majority of Ukraine’s refugees living in exile are women.
An influx of inexperienced draftees, brought in to plug the losses, has changed the profile of the Ukrainian force, the Washington Post reports.
“The most valuable thing in war is combat experience,” a battalion commander in the 46th Air Assault Brigade, who is being identified only by his call sign Kupol, told the Washington Post. “A soldier who has survived six months of combat and a soldier who came from a firing range are two different soldiers. It’s heaven and earth… And there are only a few soldiers with combat experience…. Unfortunately, they are all already dead or wounded.”
As for the Ukrainians themselves, Bankova and the general population are overwhelmingly committed to fighting to the end. Recent polls show that over 85% of the population believe in continuing the fight at any cost and will refuse any peace deal that includes giving up any territory to Russia.
According to a survey of KIIS, only 9% of Ukrainians are ready for concessions and 87% of them are against it. During the survey, the respondents were offered two scenarios: the first included the help of the West to liberate and reliably protect Ukraine’s territories, including Donbas, but without Crimea. The second is the military liberation of Crimea, but with the understanding that the West may reduce aid and the war may drag on. Among those surveyed, 64% chose the second approach. A quarter (24%) of people chose the first option. The majority of residents in all regions of Ukraine insist on the liberation of all territories, including Crimea. A compromise deal with some territorial concessions is supported by up to 27%, depending on the region.
Zelenskiy has refused to even start peace talks until all of Russia’s forces leave Ukraine, including abandoning the Donbas and Crimea. Russia for its part will also refuse to start peace talks until Kyiv recognises the four regions it annexed in September, despite the fact the Kremlin has lost control of those regions to Ukrainian government forces.
The prospects for peace are poor. Currently the only hope is a Chinese-brokered peace deal. Chinese President Xi Jinping will reportedly meet Russian President Vladimir Putin next week and Beijing floated a 12-point peace plan on the anniversary of the start of the war. Xi is expected to talk with Zelenskiy after his meeting with Putin, but Kyiv is likely to strongly resist any Chinese deal, as it calls for allowing Russia to retain all the territory it currently holds and for making most of eastern Ukraine into a demilitarised zone.
Without a change in Western policy to provide Ukraine not only with the defensive weapons to prevent it losing, but to provide it with offensive weapons like the promised tanks, the default outlook is that the fighting will grind on all summer with neither side making much progress, but with an ever increasing death toll.
This policy seems to be the actual Western strategy: to allow the war to continue until both sides are exhausted and prepared to start real peace talks – and to make sure Ukraine has the strongest hand possible when those talks start.
National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said the White House is “in constant communication with Ukraine but added that Putin showing no signs of ceasing his war: “The best thing we can do is to continue to help Ukraine succeed on the battlefield so they can be in the strongest possible position at the negotiating table for when that time comes,” Watson said, Politico reports.