Washington (CNN) – Ukraine’s military burns Soviet-era munitions suited to old regimes as the country pleads with the West to send more heavy weapons and Russia gains a major artillery advantage around two strategically important cities in eastern Ukraine.
Western military and intelligence officials believe that Russia’s war in Ukraine is at a critical point that could determine the long-term outcome of the conflict, according to multiple sources familiar with US and Western intelligence.
This pivotal moment may also impose a difficult decision on Western governments, which have so far provided support to Ukraine at an ever-increasing cost to their economies and national arms stocks.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is set to lead a task force of nearly 50 countries to discuss the crisis on Wednesday, as the United States expects more announcements of weapons and equipment packages for Ukraine, according to a senior US defense official. Ukrainian officials have expressed frustration that such vital ammunition appears to be flowing into the fighting, and have expressed concerns that Western commitment may decline at a crucial moment.
“I think it’s about to get to the point where one side or the other will succeed,” said a senior NATO official. “Either the Russians reach Sloviansk and Kramatorsk or the Ukrainians stop them here. And if the Ukrainians can hold out here, in the face of such a number of troops, it will be significant.”
Three possible outcomes of the war in Ukraine in the short term
Western officials are closely watching three possible scenarios that they believe could occur:
Russia can continue to score incremental victories in two major eastern provinces. Or it could harden the battle lines into a stalemate lasting months or years, causing heavy losses on both sides and a slow crisis that will continue to burden the global economy.
Then there is what officials consider the least likely possibility: Russia could redefine its war objectives, declare victory and attempt to engineer a closure of the fight. For now, sources say, this scenario appears to be little more than wishful thinking.
If Russia can consolidate some of its gains in the east, US officials increasingly fear that Russian President Vladimir Putin may eventually use this region as a platform to advance further into Ukraine.
“I am sure that if Ukraine is not strong enough, they will go further,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned on Tuesday in an effort to urge the West to send more weapons faster. “We have shown them our strength. It is important that this strength is also shown with us by our Western partners.”
He said Western military assistance “must come faster” if Ukraine’s allies want to stymie Russia’s regional ambitions.
Western officials widely believe that Russia is in a more favorable position in the East, based solely on the bloc. A senior Biden administration official, however, said, “Russia’s progress is not an imposed consequence.”
With the front lines of the conflict settled in a war of attrition built around back-and-forth artillery fire, both sides suffered massive losses and now faced a potential manpower shortage. Russia has also suffered losses of up to a third of its ground force, and US intelligence officials have publicly stated that Russia would struggle to make significant gains without full mobilization, a dangerous political move Putin has so far been unwilling to take. to do.
At the moment, the battle is centered around two sister cities on both sides of the Seversky Donets River, Severodonetsk and Lychansk. Ukrainian fighters are almost completely surrounded in Sievierodonetsk.
Although Western analysts believe Ukraine has a better chance of defending Lysychansk, which is on higher ground, there are already troubling signs that Russia is trying to cut off the city’s supply lines by advancing from the southeast.
“In many ways, the fate of our Donbass is determined” around these two cities, Zelensky said last week.
preference for the Soviet regimes
US officials insist that Western weapons continue to find their way to the front lines. But local reports of weapons shortages, and frustrated pleas from Ukrainian officials on the front lines, have raised questions about how effectively the supply lines are operating. Ukraine asked not only for heavy artillery, but also for more basic supplies, such as ammunition.
Part of the problem, sources say, is that even as Ukraine ran out of old Soviet munitions that would fit current systems, there were also obstacles to transferring its fighters to Western NATO-compatible systems. For one thing, training soldiers in these systems takes time and drives necessary fighters away from the battlefield.
In some cases, according to a source familiar with US intelligence, Ukraine is simply choosing not to use unknown Western systems. For example, despite receiving hundreds of Switchblade drones, some units prefer commercial drones equipped with easy-to-use explosives.
The Biden administration announced a new aid package earlier this month that includes the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HiMARS, capable of launching a barrage of rockets and missiles, which Ukraine has urgently requested for weeks. But while a small group of Ukrainian soldiers began training for the system immediately after the package was announced, it requires three weeks of training and has yet to see combat. The senior defense official said only that the system will enter Ukraine “soon”.
Meanwhile, there is still a limited number of Soviet-era ammunition in other parts of the world that can be shipped to Ukraine. The United States is urging countries with old reserves to see what reserves they have available to Ukraine, but a tough artillery battle is to “wipe Soviet equipment off the face of the earth” for Ukraine and the allies supplying it, according to one American. official.
Although the United States had a clear picture of Russian losses on the battlefield, it had a problem from the start in assessing Ukraine’s combat power. Officials acknowledge that the United States has no clear idea of where Western weapons are going or how effectively they can be used once they cross the border into Ukraine, making it difficult to predict intelligence about the fighting and political decisions about how and when. Resupplying Ukraine is just as complicated.
The senior Biden administration official told CNN that the United States is trying to “better understand its consumption rate.” [de los ucranianos] and the speed of its operations”, when asked specifically if Ukraine is running out of ammunition and weapons. “It is hard to tell,” this person said. It is clear that Ukraine is largely using artillery that the United States and other Western countries have provided, because so much of it goes in and out. out of the country for reforms.
Western officials say this blind spot is partly due to Ukraine not telling the West everything. Because the fighting is concentrated in a small area relatively close to Russia, Western intelligence services do not have the same visibility as they do elsewhere.
“As you get down to the tactical level, especially where most of the fighting is going on, it is further away from us, closer to Russia, and the forces are more crowded, very, very close to each other,” the senior NATO official said. “So it is difficult to get a good accurate picture of the situation of incidental fighting in the east.”
The NATO official added that it is also difficult to predict the performance of the Ukrainian armed forces at this critical time because with increasing casualties, trained civilian volunteers are hastily sent into combat. Its performance under fire is unknown.
“It’s one thing for people to be there, but the question is, are they ready to fight? I think they’ll see that as a factor,” the official said.
Anticipating Putin’s next move
Meanwhile, US and other Western officials see no indication that Putin’s commitment to waging a costly war is waning.
“In terms of the strategic goals we judge Putin to set in relation to Ukraine, I see no indication that they have changed,” the NATO official said. “Putin continues to believe that he will eventually succeed and take physical control or some form of political control over Ukraine for much or ideally all of it.”
But even if Putin’s commitment remains firm, there is a growing awareness that the West may not be shaken.
As the fighting continued, the cost to Western governments continued to rise. Some Western governments, including the United States, are concerned that the flow of arms given to Ukraine has depleted national stocks necessary to defend it.
The senior administration official acknowledged it is a “legitimate concern” for the United States.
Then there is, of course, the stinging of high energy prices and high inflation. As these costs begin to affect ordinary citizens, in the United States and Europe, and as media interest begins to move away from the daily friction of the fighting, some officials fear that Western support for Ukraine will wane.
A spokesman for the Ukrainian Army’s International Corps on Monday mocked the “complacency” among supporters of the Ukrainian army, saying the country needed more support if it wanted to defeat the Russian invasion.
“There is a certain complacency that seems to have come down to our Western partners that the arms shipments that Ukraine has already received are more or less sufficient to win the war,” said Damien Magro, a spokesman for the International Defense Corps of Ukraine. Ukraine. , during a press conference.
“They aren’t! They don’t come close to letting us defeat the Russians on the battlefield.”