Ukraine’s Spring Offensive Is Waiting on Weapons

The snow is melting in eastern Ukraine, and for a brief moment in a year of full-scale war with Russia, things have felt oddly normal. Over the weekend, Ukrainians painted Easter eggs, baked sweet bread, and dressed up in traditional embroidered vyshyvanka shirts. 

The snow is melting in eastern Ukraine, and for a brief moment in a year of full-scale war with Russia, things have felt oddly normal. Over the weekend, Ukrainians painted Easter eggs, baked sweet bread, and dressed up in traditional embroidered vyshyvanka shirts. 

But in the West, the eerie calm across much of Ukraine’s frozen battlefield, apart from the meat grinder of Bakhmut, has brought a sense of unease. Many are wondering: What’s the holdup for an offensive? For weeks, top Ukrainian officials—from President Volodymyr Zelensky on down—have been telegraphing that they will not start another major military onslaught on Russian lines without more weapons from the United States and the West. 

In late March, Zelensky said in a message on his Telegram that Ukraine could not begin its renewed counteroffensive until Western nations sent more weapons, including artillery, tanks, and high mobility rocket artillery. Western officials have also, to date, rebuffed Ukrainian requests for F-16 fighter jets and long-range rocket artillery that can reach Russian lines, which have moved out of the 40-plus mile range of U.S.-provided guided multiple launch rockets that the Pentagon began sending to Ukraine last summer. 

“We are waiting for ammunition to arrive from our partners,” Zelensky said in an interview with Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper in late March.

The Ukrainian leader added that the counteroffensive “can’t start yet—we can’t send our brave soldiers to the front line without tanks, artillery, and long-range rockets.”

And the call from Kyiv is growing louder. Echoing the frustration in Kyiv, Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, told The Associated Press in an interview on Tuesday that Ukraine was frustrated with some allies that “promise one thing and do a completely different one.” Even though he said Ukraine’s allies are working to build up Kyiv’s military to the level of capability needed to take the fight to Russian lines, he added that if Ukraine isn’t ready, “nobody will start unprepared.”

The spring thaw has brought top-of-the-line German Leopard tanks to Ukraine and the promise of U.S.-provided Abrams tanks arriving in their wake. But in the corridors of Kyiv, there is concern that it’s too little, too late. U.S. officials will admit—on the record, even—that Abrams tanks are months away from arriving as the Pentagon looks at its stocks to see what it can send. And worse yet, the Leopard tanks arriving from eight different countries fire different rounds, meaning that Ukrainians can’t buy munitions for their newly tricked-out ground forces in bulk. Until the cavalry arrives, Ukraine remains a paper Leopard.

Sasha Ustinova, a Ukrainian lawmaker, told Foreign Policy that the U.S. military delivered far less than what Valeriy Zaluzhny, Ukraine’s top general, has asked for from the Pentagon. But U.S. military aid is only coming in dribs and drabs, with the Biden administration nearing the end of funding for weapons left that it can pull off of Pentagon shelves to give to the Ukrainians. Ustinova said that Ukraine hoped to begin the offensive in April, but the lack of weapons has pushed the launch date back indefinitely.

“We, as a military, want to have all the weapons now, but of course it’s impossible in the current situation,” said one Ukrainian military official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Of course we need the jets, but it’s not a question of the coming months, to be honest.” 

The United States is set to announce on Thursday plans to send Ukraine $325 million in additional ammo and anti-armor weapons at a meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group in Germany, Politico first reported. The prospects of F-16 fighter jets and long-range U.S. Army Tactical Missile Systems are still tied down in internal debates, leading to frustration on Capitol Hill. 

“It is beyond time that this administration, along with our allies, provide Ukraine with the weapons they need to win,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul said at a hearing earlier on Wednesday. “We need to do more than just give Ukraine enough for survival.” Some Western officials, concerned about the long lead time for training Ukrainian pilots and maintaining jets, have hinted that F-16s could be provided to Ukraine in a post-invasion scenario as a long-term deterrent.

But Ukraine is fighting a war that’s measured in days and weeks, not months and years. It aims to claw back as much territory as possible from Russian occupiers in the Donbas and southern Ukraine. After an autumn push, Ukrainian forces drove Russian troops across the Dnipro River and recaptured Kherson, just north of the Crimean Peninsula. That’s the big target. A further spring offensive could see Ukraine try to push south—though it would face fortified Russian defenders across the river—or try to push east into Russian-occupied areas of the Zaporizhzhia province before pushing to slash supply lines into Crimea, avoiding a risky amphibious assault. 

But as the wait draws longer, Ukrainian officials are worried that the Russians have finally begun adapting their tactics enough to make a difference. Equipped with longer-range missiles, Russian ships are firing precision munitions at urban areas from as far away as the Caspian Sea, said Ustinova, the Ukrainian lawmaker, making it impossible for Ukraine to counterattack. And longer-range Su-35s, Russia’s fourth-generation fighter, can also fire from Russian airspace.

“The Russians are using more precise weapons and causing a lot of damage,” she said. “Ukraine has old weapons.” Ukraine only has enough air defense to cover a few cities and has been trying to stopgap the arrival of U.S.-made Patriot batteries, which began arriving this week, with Soviet-era Buk missiles and the medium-range Hawk missile system, which the U.S. Army stopped using in the 1990s and arrived in Ukraine without radars. 

With the Ukrainian military taking hundreds of casualties every week in the Donbas region, former U.S. officials believe that each day Kyiv waits to start an offensive, its military strength is being sapped by the ongoing fight over towns such as the resource-rich Bakhmut. 

“Each day that goes by, we just attrit and the Russians just reinforce,” said Jim Townsend, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for NATO and Europe. “It builds the case for this offensive getting started sooner rather than later.” 

Others are convinced that the offensive is worth the wait. “I think the longer Ukraine waits the better the overall odds of success,” said Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military with the Virginia-based think tank CNA.Kofman said that Ukraine likely has short supplies of tools other than weapons to help it take the fight to the Russians, such breaching, mine-clearing, bridging, and logistics equipment.

The Russian military in occupied areas of Ukraine has already started battening the hatches for the coming counteroffensive. In the city of Berdyansk, on the northern shore of the Azov Sea, Russian troops have begun fortifying the airport with trenches and pyramidal anti-tank obstacles known as ‘dragon’s teeth.’ Occupation troops have also started digging defensive fortifications in Crimea, including at the port of Sevastopol and Belbek Air Base, which has already been hit with blasts since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began more than a year ago. The invaders have been digging in, not advancing. What’s missing are the tools to root them out.

“We think the intensity of their offensive operation is decreasing,” said Yehor Cherniev, a Ukrainian lawmaker who heads the nation’s delegation to NATO’s parliamentary authority. “This is a great window for our counteroffensive.”

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