Talk of a game-changing 'spring offensive' and retaking Crimea is wishful
The recent Pentagon leaks have confirmed what many already suspected — that Ukraine is facing a much more uphill struggle than the Western narrative would have us believe. They have revealed, in particular, severe “deficiencies” in Ukraine’s munition supplies. The country’s units are burning through artillery ammunition at such a lightning-fast pace — some 7,700 shells per day, or roughly one every six seconds, according to a Ukrainian source — that they are outrunning Western manufacturing capacity and have even begun to ration shells. Meanwhile, the Russian military is said to be firing about 20,000 artillery rounds a day — three times as much.
But most alarming is the critical state of Ukraine’s Soviet-era S-300 and Buk air defence systems, which make up 89% of its protection against Russian fighter jets and bombers. According to one of the leaked documents, Ukraine risks running out of missiles and ammunition for such systems — now produced almost exclusively in Russia — within weeks. This would leave Ukraine’s vital sites and infrastructure dangerously exposed to Russian air power. The NASAMS (National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System) and IRIS-T air defence batteries supplied by the US, Norway, Canada and Germany are also apparently running low on ammunition.
What this means, according to another document, is that Kyiv’s much-vaunted spring counteroffensive — aimed at retaking Russian-occupied areas (potentially including Crimea) — risks falling “well short” of its goals. The potency of entrenched Russian defences coupled with “enduring Ukrainian deficiencies in training and munitions supplies probably will strain progress and exacerbate casualties during the offensive”, the document says. A likely consequence of the looming air defence crisis is that Ukraine will lose its ability to mass ground forces near the front lines.
In order to support the counteroffensive, earlier this month the Biden administration announced that it would send additional air defence interceptors and munitions as part of a $2.6 billion aid package. The latest air defence technology supplied by NATO includes the US-made Patriot PAC-3 and the Italian-French Aster 30 SAMP/T surface-to-air missile systems, but these are fairly new, meaning that the stocks of ammunition produced for them so far are relatively small, and with the risk of Western production capacity continuing to be outstripped. The Pentagon buys only 230 PAC-3 interceptors a year, while France and Italy have recently signed contracts for the production of 700 Aster missiles which will be delivered in the coming years.
It’s therefore unlikely that these systems will be enough to decisively tilt the balance in favour of Ukraine in the coming counteroffensive. Meanwhile, there have been rumours of growing rifts between Kyiv and Washington over military strategy — with the Americans worrying that Ukraine is expending so much manpower and ammunition in Bakhmut that it could sap their ability to mount a counteroffensive in the spring.
Indeed, according to Politico, “the US has been clear with Kyiv that it cannot fund Ukraine indefinitely at this level. Though backing Ukraine has largely been a bipartisan effort, a small but growing number of Republicans have begun to voice skepticism about the use of American treasure to support Kyiv without an end in sight to a distant war.” And, of course, policy toward Ukraine is likely to change significantly should the Republicans win the White House in the 2024 election.
It seems to be finally dawning on Western commentators that the odds of Ukraine achieving its aim of retaking Crimea and the Donbas, and fully expelling Russian forces, are slim. Continuing to fuel this delusion of a total victory means allowing the destruction and bloodshed to continue to no avail. Ultimately, as Richard Haass and Charles Kupchan write in Foreign Affairs, there is only one way this war ends: through diplomatic negotiations involving Ukrainian territorial concessions in exchange for credible security guarantees. Anyone who claims otherwise is not doing Ukraine any favours.