The West breaks heavy weapons taboo, but is it enough for Ukraine to win?

The West breaks heavy weapons taboo, but is it enough for Ukraine to win?
The US supplied Javalin missile has been a game changer in the Ukraine war as it has been able to effectively counter Russia's advantage in tanks. But the west has sent few offensive weapons, like modern tanks. That may be about to change. / bne IntelliNews
By Dominic Culverwell in London January 8, 2023

Kyiv is sending a strong message to the West; Ukraine needs offensive weapons if it's going to win this war.

On New Year’s Eve, a Ukrainian HIMARS missile attack killed 400 Russian troops in Donetsk, likely the war’s highest number of fatalities from a single missile strike. Meanwhile, in early December, Ukrainian drones carried out an attack 700 km deep into Russia, targeting Russian airfields. Three people were killed and two Tu-95 BEAR heavy bombers were damaged.

Both strikes were hailed as significant victories for Ukraine and showed how effective heavy attacks are in demoralising and embarrassing Russia. However, this is not enough to win the war and what Ukraine really needs is tanks, according to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Ukraine is struggling on the battlefield against Russia’s main battle tanks and armoured vehicles which have given the aggressor the advantage in the conflict so far, even with the anti-tank Javelins and NLAWs that were lauded at the start of the invasion.

Despite Ukraine proving that it can effectively use heavy weaponry, allies have been hesitant about providing such military support out of fear of escalation. France became the first country to offer light tanks and Bastion armoured fighting vehicles, the Kyiv Independent reported on January 4, but these are not the main battle tanks that Ukraine really needs.

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has been under fire from both Ukrainians and Germans for his lack of willingness to send heavy weaponry. Ukraine has requested Leopard 2 tanks for months, but Scholz has refused, saying that first EU and Nato allies need to agree on the policy. Both Poland and Finland announced they are willing to send Leopards but are waiting on Germany’s and Europe’s decision. 

The German leader is also facing pressure from within his own government, with Marcus Faber, a lawmaker with the Free Democrats Party, saying Germany needs to change its tune and train Ukrainians to operate Leopards and Marder infantry fighting vehicles, Ukraine Business News reported. The criticism has partially converted Scholz, as Berlin is set to send 40 Marders in the near future, according to insider sources, Bloomberg reported.

But the US is changing the tide, with a $3bn package announced on January 6. Importantly, multiple armoured vehicles are included, with 50 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, 100 M113 armoured personnel carriers, 55 mine resistant ambush protected vehicles (MRAPs) and 138 high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles (HMMWVs) pledged. In addition, artillery and missiles are also promised, including 500 TOW anti-tank missiles, RIM-7 missiles for air defence and 4,000 Zuni aircraft rockets, as well as additional ammunition for HIMARS.

The former commander of the US Army Europe, Ben Hodges, told Politico that the US should send Ukraine MGM-140 army tactical missile system (ATACMS) surface-to-surface missiles, which have a range of 300 km and were likely used in the devastating attack on the Saky air base in Crimea, destroying at least nine warplanes. However, Washington is reluctant to send the missiles out of escalation fears.

The US has also pledged to provide more HIMARS last month, which have allowed Ukraine to efficiently strike targets behind enemy lines. Kyiv currently has 20 systems, with 18 more reportedly promised this year, according to Newsweek. Although there has been debate among experts about how useful more HIMARS would be for Ukraine, the general consensus is that it is better to have more than less.

In addition to heavy weaponry, Ukraine is also negotiating more air defence. Russia has relentlessly launched over 1,000 missiles and drones since October 10, targeting critical energy infrastructure. Although the attacks have caused surprisingly low fatalities, Ukraine has been plunged into darkness and continues to suffer rolling blackouts.

Ukraine’s air defence has proved to be increasingly effective, particularly in the past month after the vast majority of missiles were shot down. Following mounting pressure from Kyiv, Washington eventually agreed to send US-made Patriot systems in December, which are one of the most capable air-defence systems in the world with a range of 100 km.

However, Russia knows Ukraine’s current weakness is drone attacks, as air defence struggles to hit the small, low-flying UAVs. As such, Moscow is becoming more reliant on Iranian-made Shahed kamikaze drones, according to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). The drones are also a cheap alternative to missiles, which Russia is likely running out of.

In response, Germany is providing Ukraine with anti-drone systems, including 30 drone detection systems and 27 anti-drone sensors and jammers, according to the Kyiv Independent. Moreover, during recent negotiations, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, Dmytro Kuleba, requested new Patriot batteries, NASAMS, Iris-T, and Crotale systems, as well as portable systems like Stingers and anti-aircraft installations, including Gepard and Vulcan.

As the war drags on into 2023, the West is starting to up the ante, although still remains hesitant about provoking Russia in case Moscow resorts to even more extreme measures. Nevertheless, Kyiv sees the deployment of new weapons and vehicles previously unavailable to Ukraine as a success.

“The time of the weapons taboo has passed. We are entering a decisive phase. There can be only one goal: the victory of Ukraine,” Kuleba wrote on Facebook on January 6, thanking President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his diplomatic team.

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