WASHINGTON — In recent weeks, Russian troops have slowly expanded their control of territory in the Donbass, pounding Ukrainian defense forces with artillery bombardment and reducing towns and villages to rubble.
The reverses of the Ukrainian army in the east contrast with the course of the war in the weeks following the Russian invasion of February 24, when Kyiv forces prevented troops attacking the capital and other cities keys, eliminating Russian tanks with anti-armour weapons.
Russia has since concentrated its forces in the east for full-scale artillery combat reminiscent of World War II battles. Experts say Moscow hopes to seize the advantage in terms of manpower and weapons, which is visible in its relentless shelling of Ukrainian forces in Donbass in recent days.
Now the West is taking steps to arm Ukraine for the new reality of war before it is too late. On June 1, the administration of US President Joe Biden will officially announce a new tranche of military aid totaling $700 million that includes powerful High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, capable of pulverize enemy forces from miles away.
Comparing the artillery war in the Donbass to two boxers fighting in the ring, a senior NATO official said on condition of anonymity on May 30 that the outcome will depend on “who has the most rounds of artillery, which has more rockets, which has more people to put on the ground in combat.
As Russia is poised to seize the whole of Luhansk Oblast, one of the two provinces that make up Donbass, the West is hoping to turn the tide of the fighting. Russian President Vladimir Putin has made the capture of Donbass a key military objective.
Russia currently has about 110 Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs) in Ukraine, according to the United States. Each group could have six to eight pieces of artillery such as howitzers or rocket launchers, Mark Cancian, a retired US Marine colonel and senior adviser at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, told RFE. / RL, an estimate that would put the total as high as 900, with the majority concentrated in the Donbass.
Wesley Clark, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe from 1997 to 2000, warned last week that Ukrainian forces lacked the artillery to effectively fight the new phase of the war and said Western military aid was so far “insufficient” to repel the Russian forces.
“Ukraine still needs to be strengthened. He has the fighting ability and determination to drive the Russians out; he doesn’t have the means,” he told RFE/RL in an interview on May 27.
“It’s a fight that could be lost,” he said.
Ukraine’s military industry has been partially crippled by missile attacks since Russia launched the full-scale invasion, undermining its defense capabilities.
And the Ukrainian army is also short of ammunition for its Soviet-made artillery, including its 152 millimeter howitzers, hampering its ability to destroy Russian weapons.
Globally, the biggest suppliers of this ammunition are Russia and China, according to Cancian.
“The United States literally scoured the world for Soviet-spec ammunition to give to the Ukrainians. And I suspect we’re running out of places that will sell us that kind of ammunition,” he said.
For weeks, as its soldiers were slowly pushed back from some of their positions in the Donbass, Ukraine was asking Western nations for increased military aid, including howitzers and rocket launchers to destroy Russian artillery.
In a May 31 New York Times guest essay, Biden wrote that his administration had agreed to provide Ukrainian forces with “more advanced rocket systems and munitions that will allow them to more accurately strike key targets on the field of fire.” battle in Ukraine”.
However, he added that the United States “does not encourage or allow Ukraine to strike beyond its borders.”
The United States has been reluctant to hand over such heavy artillery, fearing it will provoke Russia, analysts said.
Some analysts have said that the administration’s internal debate over arms supplies has wasted valuable Ukraine time.
“All of our decisions were late,” Ben Hodges, former commander of the US Army in Europe, told RFE/RL.
“The administration has exaggerated the concern that whatever we do might provoke the Russians. They don’t need provocation. They attack without provocation,” he told RFE/RL.
“We lost weeks when [rocket systems] could have been delivered,” said Hodges, who is now a military analyst for the US-based Center for European Policy Analysis.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told his country on May 30 that the situation in Donbass was “extremely difficult” claiming that Russia has concentrated its army’s “maximum combat power” in the region. Earlier in May, he said Russian attacks were killing 50 to 100 Ukrainian troops a day.
The intense bombardment is putting Ukrainian supply lines under extreme pressure, making it difficult to get Western weapons to frontline soldiers quickly, analysts said.
Western military aid is flown into Ukraine from Poland by train and further by truck to the front lines. Russia is seeking to cut these transport links to the Donbass.
Hodges said Ukrainian forces will face a “pretty difficult” few weeks before they begin to feel the “positive effect” of all the American and Western artillery that is starting to arrive.
Clark sees a two-month window from July for Ukrainian forces to drive the Russians out of Donbass if they receive enough heavy artillery.
By then, the ground will be parched, making it easier to attack, while Russia will still have to marshal more forces, he said.
The United States began sending heavy artillery to Ukraine in April, including the powerful M777 howitzer, which can hit targets up to 40 kilometers away.
On May 26, a senior US Department of Defense official said he had delivered 85 M777 howitzers to Ukraine, along with 190,000 projectiles for use in these weapon systems.
The Biden administration has pledged a total of 108 M777s and 209,000 projectiles, though that could be increased as the war continues.
Howitzers can fire a variety of 155 millimeter projectiles, including guided munitions, which Cancian says could be a game-changer in the Donbass fight, as they have greater potential to strike and destroy Russian artillery .
We don’t know how many guided projectiles for the M777 that Ukraine received.
Cancian said it takes time to train soldiers to operate and maintain howitzers, calling it a “constraint” to their rapid deployment to the front lines.
The United States has trained more than 400 people to operate the M777 and about 50 have learned to maintain them, the US official said. Eight soldiers are needed to operate an M777.
The HIMARS just approved by the Biden administration are equally devastating.
Glen Howard, military expert and president of the Jamestown Foundation, said HIMARS can “pulverize” an area where enemy forces are gathering for an attack.
“They just saturate an area,” he said.
HIMARS consist of a six-rocket pod launched from a truck. Unlike the howitzer, which can fire continuously, it takes about five minutes to reload a pod.
HIMARS and howitzers “complement each other”, Cancian said.
“If you want to smother a target at long range, [HIMARS are] excellent. On the other hand, if you want to keep firing at an enemy position to knock them down or try to destroy them with lots of ammo, the artillery gun is great,” he said.
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The United States has authorized the delivery of HIMARS rockets capable of traveling up to 80 kilometers, a senior administration official said on May 31. HIMARS can launch missiles up to 300 kilometers – but delivering missiles of such range could violate Biden’s resolve not to goad Ukraine into targeting Russian soil.
“Biden people are obsessed with something offensive because it means escalation,” Howard said of the limitation. “And that’s why the [M777 munitions] were so slow to arrive.
Howard suggested that HIMARS as well as new Western anti-ship missiles could potentially deter Russia from attacking ships exporting grain from Ukrainian Black Sea ports.
Russia is currently block Ukrainian portsdriving up grain prices and raising fears of global famine.
Its warships and submarines patrol the waters between Crimea and Snake Island, a small rocky outpost just 48 kilometers from the Ukrainian coast.
Denmark recently delivered Harpoon anti-ship missile systems to Ukraine to bolster its weak national weapons supply.
Ukraine claims responsibility for the April sinking of the Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.
Russia, which captured Snake Island earlier in the war, is placing air and missile defense systems there in an attempt to maintain the strategic outpost.
While HIMARS rockets approved by the Biden administration cannot reach Russian artillery in Crimea, they can reach Snake Island.
It is not clear whether Ukraine will place the HIMARS along its Black Sea coast.