Ukraine’s nearly 3-month-old counteroffensive has been advancing — but it isn’t the decisive blitz that had been expected as Western allies, including the US, have stalled on sending critical weapons over fears it would “provoke the bear.”
The Biden administration has been “waffling” on the timely supply of crucial weapons and equipment to Kyiv’s defenders, including long-range missile systems, demining machines, cluster munitions and F-16 fighter jets, according to experts.
“There is an ongoing habit of waffling,” Matthew Wallin, chief operating officer of American Security Project, a nonpartisan think tank, told The Post.
The military and public diplomacy specialist added that both the US and European allies “have been in the habit of slow-rolling (the equipment).”
George Barros, an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, which has been providing daily updates on the conflict, went even further — arguing that Ukraine’s allies in Washington, London and Brussels were too late in even pledging their support.
Had they made the necessary political decisions to supply all the weapons the Ukrainians were asking for last year, when the enemy was most vulnerable after a string of humiliating defeats, Kyiv could have avoided a lot of bloodshed and be in a much stronger position now.
According to Barros, the US and European approach has been to wait until Ukrainians prove their mettle in combat — and then send them new equipment piecemeal.
Western allies have ignored when Kyiv’s fighters would be engaged in critical battles, or how long it would take for weapons to be delivered and become operational, he said.
“We debate a certain system, and when the situation becomes quite dire in Ukraine, they decide now is the time to send the system,” the analyst said, adding that “it’s good that we send these things, but the timing is sub-optimal.”
If the Ukrainians were to receive multiple weapons systems simultaneously, Barros continued, it would have strengthened their offensive by making it more difficult for the Russians to have to adapt and develop countermeasures.
The allies’ foot-dragging on military aid — stemming in part from Western fears gleefully stoked by Moscow’s propagandists of a nuclear war with Russia — has allowed Vladimir Putin’s army ample time to map out and mine huge swaths of occupied territory, and erect formidable Word War I- and World War II-style defenses.
The result has slowed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s anticipated counteroffensive to a crawl.
Since early June, Ukraine has retaken a dozen villages but has yet to breach Russia’s main defenses.
Barros stressed that the deep Russian anti-tank ditches, “dragon’s teeth” concrete obstacles, and minefields that Ukrainian forces have been forced to contend with have sprung up only over the past 9 or 10 months.
At least some of those difficulties could have been avoided, he argued, had the West not been afraid to “provoke the bear.”
Wallin, however, noted that there might have been some legitimacy to this measured approach to military aid early on, considering that Western countries did not have a clear picture of Ukraine’s capabilities at the start of the war.
On top of that, the US has a long history of handing over advanced weaponry to its allies, only to then see it abandoned, destroyed, or captured by the enemy — like what happened in Afghanistan.
Still, over the past 18 months, Wallin said Ukrainian troops have proven themselves to be capable and skilled, for example, learning to use the Patriot surface-to-air missile systems better than even the Americans.
“They are literally the most experienced tankers, pilots, in the world at this point,” he added.
Barros concurred, saying: “Ukrainians actually outmatch us in experience and practical knowledge.”
Since the start of the full-scale invasion in Feb. 2022, the US alone has given Ukraine more than $43 billion in military and humanitarian aid, which experts say has been instrumental to the war effort.
Deputy Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh said Tuesday that the US is sending Kyiv “capabilities to meet its immediate battlefield needs and longer-term security assistance requirements.”
But what are considered such “needs and requirements” have largely been defined by Washington – not by the Ukrainian forces at the tip of the spear.
While Kyiv since the war’s early months has begged the US and other foreign partners to send fighter jets, tanks and other fearsome weapons, it took more than a year to secure approval for such items.
Meanwhile, other allies have then had a tendency to look to the US for direction, as the Pentagon has taken the lead in organizing military aid deliveries and rallying international support for Ukraine.
It’s caused considerable frustration among Ukrainian leaders – including President Zelensky – who say they know what is best for their country.
Kyiv has also recently rebuked strategic advice from Western military experts who encouraged Ukraine to focus its forces on specific areas of the battle.
Instead, Ukraine has directed its forces throughout much of the counteroffensive to disperse throughout the eastern portion of the country.
Some US defense experts have told The Post that tactic essentially waters down Ukraine’s effectiveness, spreading out its fight rather than focusing on major targets – but added that it’s “Ukraine’s war to fight.”
Speaking to The Post this week, both Wallin and Barros defended Ukraine’s tactics, pointing out that its armies are being forced to pursue a large-scale mechanized campaign with little to no air support — an unheard-of proposition for any Western nation.
“Western militaries have no modern experience of operating without dominance of the air, without air superiority,” Wallin stressed.
“I don’t fault the Ukrainians for the trouble they are facing.”
Barros clapped back at unnamed US and foreign government officials, who have been harping about Ukrainian fighting tactics in articles published in the New York Times, the Washington Post and other outlets last week — accusing the anonymous detractors of undermining the counteroffensive.
According to the analyst, contrary to the critics’ opinions, “(the fighting) is adhering to the best practices of how to conduct a large mechanized campaign.”
Responding to complaints voiced by some commenters that Ukrainians are not fighting like NATO soldiers, Barros shot back: “We didn’t provide them the tools to fight like NATO.”
Ukrainians themselves are also apparently growing tired of the disparaging remarks from the West about their counteroffensive, with the country’s Foreign Minister Dmitro Kuleba telling the critics to “shut up” Thursday.
“Criticizing the slow pace of (the) counteroffensive equals … spitting into the face of (the) Ukrainian soldier who sacrifices his life every day, moving forward and liberating one kilometer of Ukrainian soil after another,” Kuleba fumed.
“I would recommend all critics to shut up, come to Ukraine and try to liberate one square centimeter by themselves,” he said at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Spain.
Still, despite the slower-than-desired pace of the counteroffensive, the White House believes the tide is not turning in Russia’s favor, citing signs of “weakness” shown in Moscow’s recent actions in the international sphere, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Wednesday.
Ukrainians are “going on the offense in the east” in the country’s crawling counteroffensive, where Kirby said Russia is struggling.
He cited Moscow’s failure to take Kyiv, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent weapons negotiations with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and the loss of “tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of troops either killed or wounded in this war.”
“Mr. Putin has achieved — let me count it — zero of his strategic goals in Ukraine. He has lost tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of troops either killed or wounded in this war. And none of his strategic goals have been achieved.”
Kirby said the current fight in Ukraine mainly involves small arms, munitions and artillery, which is why Putin is seeking artillery from North Korea, the US believes.
“What we’re seeing in this counteroffensive is (that) it’s a gunfight and both sides are blazing away with artillery,” Kirby said. “We know that artillery is one of those items, but it’s multiple levels of types of munitions.”
Still, Kirby said the US does not have any predictions for when the war might end, as it “doesn’t appear like Mr. Putin is willing to lay down the arms, willing to stop the war (or) willing to sit down in good faith and negotiate with (Ukrainian) President Volodymyr Zelensky.”
“The war still rages, the Ukrainians are still making incremental progress here in the counteroffensive. There’s a lot of bloody fighting going on,” he added.
“The Ukrainians are doing what they need to do – they’re doing what they must do – which is (to) continue to defend our country and try to claw back some of that territory in the east and in the south.”
The Biden Administration is determined to continue sending Ukraine military aid through the war’s hopeful end. Since August 2021, Congress has allocated nearly $24 billion to send in weapons to Ukraine, according to a recent Congressional Research Services report.
On Tuesday, Secretary of State Blinken unveiled a new package of military equipment valued at $250 million, drawn from $6.2 billion of funds discovered after a Pentagon accounting error that overvalued billions of dollars of Ukraine aid.
The package will include air defense missiles, HIMARS munitions, artillery shells and much-needed mine-clearing equipment.
But among the things Ukraine needs more than anything at this moment in its crawling counteroffensive, according to the experts, are Abrams tanks, which the US had pledged late last year but has yet to deliver, and F-16 fighter jets, the transfer of which from the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway the Biden Administration finally green-lit earlier this month after protracted negotiations.
“If more had been approved earlier, with fastest training and delivery as a clear priority, Ukraine would likely have been better off today as Russia would have had less time to prepare and Ukraine would have had more combat power to apply to their objectives earlier,” retired US Major. Gen. Gordon “Skip” Davis, now a senior fellow with the Center for European Policy Analysis, wrote in an email to The Post.
By some estimates, Ukraine won’t be able to make use of the F-16s until at least next spring or summer – too late to make a difference in the current counteroffensive — because training pilots on the aircraft and building infrastructure to maintain and shield them from Russian missiles takes time.
“The Ukrainians needed F-16s, they need main battle tanks now,” Barros said.
Taking stock of the counteroffensive close to its three-month mark, Gordon said that at this time, Ukraine retains the initiative, “steadily and slowly” advancing forward.
Kyiv’s strategy, according to the retired general, is to liberate as much of its occupied territory as possible, cut off the Russian forces from Crimea and threaten to recapture the peninsula, which has been under Moscow’s control since 2014.
“This is not a strategy for an end-game, but a stepping stone towards an end-game,” the retired general noted.
In recent days, the Ukrainians have been advancing in the Zaporzhizhia region around the recently liberated settlement of Robotyne, which Wallin said seemed “promising.” That location could be a stepping stone to capturing the Russian-held rail hub of Tokmak.
“If the Ukrainians successfully exploit something like this…and they keep making the progress that they are (making)… you could cause the collapse of the Russian line, but you don’t necessarily know it’s going to happen until it’s happening,” Wallin said.
Despite the guarded assessments of Ukraine’s counteroffensive, Barros said it is not at a “stalemate” and Kyiv’s troops stand a chance of making significant progress, especially considering recent troop movements on the Russian side suggesting that Moscow had been forced to bring in reinforcements and call up elite units.
“We are within the decisive phase of this battle and this campaign,” the Institute analyst said.
Gordon agreed, predicting that over the next 4 months, “we will see tactically significant gains by Ukrainian forces on the battlefield, continued sustainment of Western support with marginal increases in critical capabilities, and increasing signs of difficulties by Russian forces to sustain a coherent defense.”
But the retired general warned that the counteroffensive will likely continue to be “slow and difficult,” accompanied by massive casualties on both sides.
“I would give Ukraine forces a 50-50% chance of a significant breakthrough on one of its southern axes,” Gordon continued.
“That is, enough of a gain to demonstrate the viability of their effort and to partially achieve their objectives for this counteroffensive.”
Additional reporting by Caitlin Doornbos