As Russia advances, is Western support for Ukraine faltering?
As the war rages into a 17th week, Kyiv is appealing for more heavy weapons, but rhetoric from Western leaders suggests support may be ebbing.
Ukraine’s weary defenders continued to score some successes against Russian forces in the 16th week of the war, but Ukrainian leaders say they are also outgunned and in danger of losing territory in the Donbas, where Moscow is focusing its offensive.
Western governments have pledged huge quantities of howitzers, armoured vehicles, anti-tank and anti-air weapons, but the politics underpinning these deliveries may now be eroding as the war lumbers on in a seemingly open-ended stalemate whose economic side-effects are taking a toll on global growth.
Melitopol Mayor Ivan Fedorov said Ukrainian forces managed to push the Zaporizhia front line 5-7km (3-4 miles) south in the first two weeks of June. The Kherson city council said Ukrainian forces launched a counteroffensive on June 11 to take the settlements of Kyselivka, Soldatske and Oleksandrivka, all within 40km (25 miles) of the Russian-occupied port of Kherson.
In the Donetsk region, Ukraine’s Joint Forces command said on June 13 it had recaptured three settlements from Russia and pushed the front forward by 15km (9 miles).
These successes are measured against a creeping Russian advance through the city of Severdonetsk, one of the last free strongholds of the easternmost Luhansk region.
Ukraine’s deputy head of military intelligence Vadym Skibitsky said Ukraine is on the verge of losing the battle there because of Russia’s superior firepower.
“According to our estimates, Russia still has the potential to wage a long-term war against Ukraine,” said Skibitsky in an interview with Current Time.
NATO weaponry is “still not enough to slow down the offensive pace of Russia’s armed forces,” he said.
Ukrainian fighters have been stealing advances when they can, but the manner in which Russia can roll these back was explained by Luhansk governor Serhiy Haidai.
“A couple of days ago, special forces did come in and clean up almost half of the city,” he told RBC Ukraine, claiming there had been a Ukrainian advance in Severdonetsk on June 5-6. “When the Russians realised this, they simply began to level it to the ground with air strikes and artillery. It makes no sense to sit in a high-rise building and wait until everything is completely destroyed.”
The grinding attrition of such war is evident in the casualties, says Ukraine’s defence minister Oleksii Reznikov.
“Every day we have up to 100 of our soldiers killed and up to 500 wounded. The Kremlin continues to press by sheer mass, stumbles, faces [a] strong rebuff and suffers huge casualties. But yet still has forces to advance in some parts of the front.”
This is despite the fact that Ukraine estimates Russia’s casualties to be two or three times its own and Russian morale low. For example, Ukraine’s general staff reports that Russian paratroopers from the 106th and 76th Airborne divisions refused to fight in Luhansk and are being sent home.
The remedy for this bloody stalemate is more weaponry, said Reznikov.
While 90 percent of artillery requests have been met by allies, the operational needs are increasing. In a social media post, he said “Ukraine desperately needs heavy weapons, and very fast,” including “hundreds” of heavily armoured vehicles, fighter jets, anti-aircraft and missile systems, and multiple-launch rocket systems.
“Either the world doesn’t quite understand what’s going on, or it understands, but it’s tired and resigned to the fact that Ukrainians are dying,” he told The Economist.
George Barros, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, agrees.
“The Ukrainians need better weapons with longer effective ranges in order to hit those Russian logistics convoys and to hit those Russian ammunition depots further back,” he said.
Is the world resigned?
Western leaders and analysts have made much of the punishing sanctions imposed on Russia, but they are not hampering Russia’s short-term ability to fight.
Ukraine’s deputy head of military intelligence Vadym Skibitsky said Russia has extended its war planning for the next 120 days, and Ukraine’s main intelligence directorate estimates Russia can afford to continue the war at the current rate for at least another year.
The reason was recently explained by the independent Finnish Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA). Russia earned $98bn from fossil fuel exports during the first 100 days of its war in Ukraine, it announced, and 61 percent of exports went to Europe. Russia’s war cost has been estimated at a billion dollars a day, matching earnings from oil and gas.
The European Union has agreed to cut 90 percent of Russian oil imports, which form the bulk of its energy sales to Europe, but those cuts will not happen until the end of the year.
This economic reality, rather than developments in the field, effectively determines a Russian victory, says Ioannis Mazis, chair of the department of Turkish and Modern Asian Studies at the University of Athens.
“By autumn, it’ll all be over,” Mazis told Al Jazeera.
“Crimea and a whole region that will include Odesa will essentially be ceded to Russia. If Odesa falls, it won’t be through attacks. Mykolaiv will fall first, then there will be an easy [Russian] advance to Transnistria. Ukraine will become landlocked, referenda will happen in the autumn, and there will be annexations to Russia … Russia will predominate in the region,” he said.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s hopes of rolling Russia back to pre-invasion borders do not seem to be shared by its Western allies.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg appeared to suggest this past week that Ukraine will have to accept a loss of sovereignty or territory in return for peace, during a press conference in Finland.
“The question is, what price are you willing to pay for peace? How much territory, how much independence, how much sovereignty, how much freedom, how much democracy, are you willing to sacrifice for peace?” Stoltenberg said, sitting beside Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, on June 13.
His comments appeared to echo sentiments expressed by Henry Kissinger at the Davos World Economic Forum in May, that Ukraine needs to give up territory to achieve peace.
Pope Francis caused controversy on June 14 when comments he made in May were published in the magazine La Civiltà Cattolica. The war in Ukraine “was perhaps somehow either provoked or not prevented,” he said, words which some observers said seemed to ascribe just cause to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
There have been other cautionary statements from European leaders, in stark contrast to the more gung-ho US approach. Italian prime minister Mario Draghi last month called for a ceasefire “as soon as possible”, and French President Emmanuel Macron this month emphasised the importance of not humiliating Russia.
For now, though, the EU officially supports sending more military aid to Ukraine.
As EU high representative Josep Borrell put it on June 13, “Our military aid must reach the Ukrainian forces as quickly as possible, because they are not waging war with banknotes but with guns which enable them to resist Russian aggression.”