As the conflict escalates, Zelenskyy's allies face a dilemma
Over the last two weeks, Western joy over Ukraine’s military victories in Kharkov and Kherson has started to dissipate. Russia has since managed to stabilise its defensive lines and is once again on the front foot in the Donbas. It has been a wake-up call for Western policymakers, who are actively trying to replenish Ukrainian equipment losses, train additional forces, and even introduce new weapons systems into the arena. This marks a significant escalation in the conflict, even though few seem to have realised.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently described the current period as “a decisive phase of the war” and has encouraged supporting nations to “provide Ukraine with the weapons it needs to win — and to continue as an independent nation.” These comments followed British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s pledge to send 14 Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine, making it the first country to give assets from this class of heavy warfare equipment. This is in spite of the fears of General Sir Patrick Sanders, who suggested that parting with the Challenger 2s will leave the UK “temporarily weaker”.
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European leaders, for the most part, have been following Sunak’s cue. At Davos, Ursula von der Leyen, Sanna Marin, and Andrzej Duda were among those who doubled down on the necessity of a Ukrainian victory and a decisive Russian defeat. Olaf Scholz agreed with the sentiment during his own special address, but in practice the German Chancellor has been noticeably more reticent. According to Duda, Poland’s plan to send Germany’s much-coveted Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine was a “very, very, very, very needed decision,” but so far Scholz has resisted due to fears that it would make Germany a party to war. When asked directly on Wednesday whether he would supply the tanks, Scholz was again non-committal (despite pressure from his Green party coalition partner).
Meanwhile, the United States had earlier announced the provision of an advanced Patriot defence missile system, as well as a new $3 billion aid package comprised of 50 Bradley Fighting Vehicles and a diverse range of weaponry. This brings the total security assistance since the war began to $24.2 billion.
The hope is — as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley expressed in his first in-person meeting with Ukraine’s military chief, Valerii Zaluzhnyi — to assure Kyiv of the US’s abiding support. But it also amounts to a huge escalation in Western involvement in the conflict — and one that might encourage Putin to take more radical action.
Russian forces have been advancing across Ukraine and, in taking Soledar, have pulled off their first significant breakthrough in months. Their string of local advances are now taking place in the parts of the front spanning from Zaporizhzhia Oblast in the south to Avdiivka, Klishchiivka, up to Bakhmut and Siversk further north.
In the context of a widely anticipated Russian offensive, there is no end in sight for this conflict. The brutal war of attrition is about to escalate.