Clouds Over Ukraine’s Defense Prospects

Slowing economies, winter weather and depleted supplies of arms build

By Anil Madan

Two weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal reported that business activity in the US, Europe and Japan fell in August, pointing to a sharp slowdown in global economic growth. Rising prices due to inflation have weakened consumer demand and the war in Ukraine continues to see supply chains in a shambles. Although the US economy has not been as severely affected as the rest of the world’s economies, it also saw a sharp drop off in business activity in August. Service companies were prominent among the laggards although manufacturing also slowed. High inflation, material shortages, delivery and shipping delays, and rising interest rates are pressuring the US economy.

Clouds Over Ukraine. Pic – Newsweek

It has been well documented that China’s economy has shown signs of a dramatic slowdown as well. In Europe, economies declined for a second consecutive month as energy prices rose. Concerns abound in Europe about whether Russia will ensure a steady supply of natural gas as winter looms only a few months away. Gazprom, the Russian government-controlled gas company shut down the flow of gas through the Nord Stream pipeline to Germany. This move, whether necessary or a stunt by Putin as a prelude to a total shutoff, will have a negative impact on the ability of EU countries to boost storage of gas reserves for the winter. Although the shutdown was scheduled to last three days, Putin announced that Russia would resume gas supplies if it received needed turbines from Siemens, the German company. If sanctions prevent Siemens from shipping turbines to Russia and Putin’s claims that the turbines need to be replaced are true, Germany faces an indefinite shutdown of Russian gas.

Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine continues. After six months, although NATO countries are providing some military aid to Ukraine, realistically, Ukraine depends on the US for the bulk of the support it receives.

The slowdown in the European, UK, and US economies may presage a drop in the level of available support for Ukraine’s defensive effort from these allies.

Take for instance the US package of nearly $3 billion worth of long-term security aid to Ukraine announced last week. This is the biggest weapons assistance package that the US has provided to Ukraine since February when Russia attacked Ukraine. This tranche of support includes advanced surface-to-air defense systems, counter-artillery radar systems and a quarter million rounds of ammunition, drones, spare parts, and funding to train Ukraine’s forces to use these weapons systems. The US is also appointing a general to oversee the effort to train Ukraine’s forces.

Surely, this signals that robust support from the US will continue. But should we conclude that this new package of support and training can turn the tide in Ukraine’s favour. Not so fast. The Biden administration has clarified that these new weapons represent a multi-year investment even as some US defense contractors may be able to provide some weapons and munitions in the coming months. Some weapons could take up to three years to arrive, according to defense officials quoted by the Wall Street Journal. The Pentagon confirmed that this security assistance package is designed to help Ukraine build its military in the long term. There is an obvious need to streamline the many different systems that have been provided by the US and NATO countries. 

Colin Kahl, the undersecretary of defense for policy stated that the future force of Ukraine looks like “it’s sustainable.” He added: “We’re very focused here on helping Ukraine try to plan out what is kind of a rational force of the future, and I would anticipate a lot of NATO-standard weapons.”

Potential nuclear meltdown

But what of the immediate crisis that threatens Ukraine? The question is whether Ukraine can sustain its defense effort against Russian attacks. As has been well documented, Ukraine’s cities and infrastructure have been reduced to rubble. More than a third of its population has been displaced. Its wheat harvest is virtually nonexistent for this year. The prospect of a potential nuclear meltdown at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear-power plant looms over the country. Two weeks ago, that plant was disconnected from the electrical grid.“As a result of enemy shelling, the city was left completely without electricity and water,” said Dmitry Orlov, the exiled mayor of Enerhodar where the nuclear power plant is located. Other Ukrainian cities and towns have similar stories of the destruction of their electric and water supplies.

Although Ukraine does not provide official figures for troop losses, it is likely that tens of thousands of Ukrainian troops have been killed or wounded.Recently, there have been reports of troops being lost at the rate of a hundred men per day.

Russia has suffered heavy losses as well. The US announced that Russia has lost up to 80,000 troops so far. Last week President Putin signed a decree ordering an increase in the size of Russia’s military forces. Stories abound that Russia is trying to entice volunteers to join the armed forces. Reports suggest that often these so-called “soldiers” are ill-equipped and barely trained. They are nothing more than cannon fodder for the most part.

Ukraine has been provided HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems) rockets that it has used effectively to repel Russian troops and to blow up Russia’s munitions dumps and disrupt supply lines. Russia has accused the US of pouring fuel on the fire and threatened escalatory responses if Ukraine uses the HIMARS rockets to attack inside Russian territory.

From early on in this war, Ukraine’s forces have been outgunned and outmanned by Russian forces and Ukraine has suffered devastating damage from Russian artillery, rockets, and cruise missiles. So far, the Biden administration has refused Ukraine’s requests for longer range missiles. Perhaps this is to avoid giving Ukraine the capability to fire into Russian territory.Ukraine will, of course, attack Russian forces where and when it can. Earlier this month Ukrainian forces attacked a Russian air base and ammunition depot in Crimea. The obvious goal is to degrade Russia’s capabilities in Crimea and disrupt the logistical support Russia can muster from its bases in that area.

To some extent, Ukrainian forces have been successful in blunting Russia’s war effort and putting a dent in its ammunition stockpiles and disrupting its supply chains. Russia is facing shortages of troops as well as ammunition.

Iranian drones

However, in an ominous development, the Biden administration has confirmed reports that Iran has shipped at least two kinds of Iranian drones for use against Ukrainian forces. The US expects that these drones will be used to carry out surveillance, missile strikes and even electronic warfare. It is expected that Iran will send hundreds of drones to Moscow as a counter to the support that the US and other western countries are sending to Ukraine.

Recent reports suggest that Russia has experienced serious problems with the Iranian drones. Nevertheless, an alliance between Russia and Iran to develop and deploy more weapons of destruction is not a welcome development for the prospects of peace either in Ukraine or the Middle East where Iran’s drones are used in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

We have the prospect of Russian troops running low on ammunition, fuel and food as its ammunition dumps are blown up and supply lines disrupted. And we have the prospect of Ukrainian troops looking ahead to the advent of winter without housing, running water, heat, or perhaps enough resources with which to fend off the Russians.

Can America continue to supply Ukraine indefinitely? Recent reports tell us that transfers to Ukraine have depleted American stocks of some types of ammunition. The Pentagon has apparently not acted with urgency to replenish its stocks and there is concern about America’s own military readiness on that account. Apparently, the HIMARS systems supplied to Ukraine came directly from the Pentagon’s inventory which was intended to be used for unexpected threats against the US. These stocks have not been replenished.

The US has reportedly sent Ukraine howitzers that fire 155mm rounds weighing about 100 lbs. each, sending just short of a such million rounds to Ukrainian forces. The US did not reveal how many rounds it started with at the beginning of the year. US defense officials have conceded that American stocks of these 155 mm rounds have become “uncomfortably low” and not at the level at which the US would like to go into combat. Restarting American supply lines with defense contractors is not easily done with a snap of the fingers. It could take years to rebuild American inventories.

The US has reported that Russia seeks to import supplies of rockets from North Korea. This, if true, appears to confirm that Russia is also running short of materiel and munitions. Putin just announced that he will meet with President Xi of China. The two countries are planning a new gas pipeline to China through Mongolia. Whereas China represents a hugely important market for Russian gas, there is also the prospect that China will supply munitions and materiel to aid Russia’s war effort.

The only conclusion that one can draw is that the war against Ukraine is likely to drag on at a lower level of intensity. We can expect that Russia will continue to try to destroy Ukraine’s cities, towns, roads, bridges, airports and infrastructure with shelling and the Ukrainians will work hard at destroying Russian military equipment and the supply lines that support Russian troops.

Ultimately, winter may be the winner as both sides will face intensely cold weather for months.

The bigger question is where will both Russia and Ukraine find more manpower to fight this war and where will the find the ammunition and weapons with which to conduct it.

Against this backdrop, there have been suggestions that Putin might resort to using nuclear weapons if he cannot gain a decisive victory in Ukraine. Perhaps this is idle speculation by pundits and we don’t want to go there. But there is little solace in relying on the expectation that a Russian president who acted on impulse and irrational fears, will not do the same in the nuclear context. After all, the concept of MAD or Mutually Assured Destruction is not in play when neither the US nor any other NATO country is attacked.

This ongoing tragedy is likely to continue.


Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 9 September 2022

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