The United States and its partners are stepping up their support for the Ukrainian military — including the Pentagon’s new plan to speed up the delivery of Abrams main battle tanks and the decision by Poland and Slovakia to provide fighter jets — reflecting alarm over recent developments: Russians and the Kremlin’s ever-closer alliances with China and Iran.

While Vice President Biden has promised to stand behind Kyiv “for as long as it takes,” Ukrainian leaders, Western diplomats, and analysts all say that aid is taking too long to arrive.

 As both sides prepare for a spring season of fighting that could tip the outcome of the war, Ukraine still lacks the strength and weaponry to drive the Russian invaders from its territory fully.

The announcement of the fighter jets was highly symbolic, and much applauded in Kyiv. Still, Soviet-era planes are of limited use given the nature of the war, largely a close-range artillery fight in which none of the parts controls the heavens. 

The Abrams main battle tanks will add a larger armored force, but they won’t arrive until the fall, about six months after the Ukrainian counteroffensive planned for the spring.

“What is clear is that time is on Russia’s side, which means it has the soldiers and materiel to fight a long war along a huge front,” said Rachel Rizzo, an analyst with the Atlantic Council’s Europe program. “Ukraine does not have that advantage. … If the weapons are not delivered quickly enough, it will be extremely difficult for Ukraine to cope with the Russian advances.”

Delays are not the only problem. Despite the West’s declarations of support, other key items on Ukraine’s weaponry wish list remain unfulfilled. Kyiv is asking for everything from sophisticated hardware such as US F-16 fighters and long-range rocket artillery to basic ammunition, especially shells for its tanks and Soviet-era artillery pieces.

Publicly, Ukrainian leaders are confident and grateful. “We expect supplies of exactly what we need to increase,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared this week. “And we need it right now.”

It’s clear that some of Kyiv’s backers are taking the initiative. While Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed that depleted uranium tank ammunition has “a nuclear component,” Britain acknowledged this week that it is providing such rounds to Ukraine. When used against armor, heavy metal is particularly effective.

Germany, initially hesitant to deliver Leopard tanks to Ukraine, now hopes to assemble two Leopard 2 battalions, totaling 70 tanks. However, many of those vehicles, which were built, still needed to be repaired and tested. in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Ukraine
Ukrainian forces take refuge in a snowy forest in a Soviet-era S1 howitzer in the Donetsk region on February 14, 2023.

At the same time, the concern that the West has hesitated too long is palpable.

“The side that has more resources and arrives earlier has to win on the battlefield,” said Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. “Artillery ammunition is the top priority.

Ukrainian lives will be saved more quickly if we receive more shells, and if Ukrainian defense and counteroffensive operations are successful, the conflict will end, and peace will be restored in Ukraine more quickly through significant victory on the battlefield.

Estonian ambassador to Ukraine Kaimo Kuusk said NATO countries should have provided “more and faster… [the day before yesterday. But complaining won’t change the past.” And he added: “We must help Ukraine to change the future right now.”

The Kremlin has denounced the United States and its allies for supplying arms to Ukraine, angrily insisting that they are only prolonging the conflict and delaying Russia’s inevitable victory.

Advocates of the incremental strategy claim that the West has done everything it can to avoid direct conflict with Russia, although this approach has undeniably cost Ukraine more casualties. The spring counteroffensive, aimed at retaking much of the territory occupied by Russia, could be a litmus test.

Ukraine is retaining some soldiers from the bloodier fronts in the country’s east, where neither side has made any notable territorial gains of late. Those troops will form newly formed assault brigades, and many have been undergoing training abroad with new equipment Western countries have promised Ukraine.

Kyiv, for example, is creating special battalions for the combat vehicles and tanks that Western countries are providing, officials said. A battalion organized around the US-supplied Bradleys will have about 30 combat vehicles.

But even promised supplies could be further delayed if supply lines and transportation hubs are overwhelmed with material deliveries, potentially giving Russia an advantage.

A European diplomat expressed hope that, following the announcements by Poland and Slovakia, other supporters would also supply plans. “The main significance of the Polish plans is that they break a glass ceiling, showing that giving fighter plans is not taboo and that it will not lead to a Third World War,” the diplomat stated.

But, Pentagon strategy chief Colin Kahl denied that the country would benefit in the short term if the United States granted Ukraine’s request for F-16s at a House hearing last month.

He said manufacturing and delivering new plans would take many years, and even shipping existing plans would take at least 18 months, as would training Ukrainian personnel.

Furthermore, he added that supplying even half of the requested plans would be unreasonably expensive. US officials have stressed that extensive air defenses on both sides have rendered the fighters of limited value to Ukraine and Russia.

But in an interview with The Washington Post in February, Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, said the main value of modern fighters like the F-16s lies in their long-range strike capability. 

 Russian forces have adapted to Ukraine’s use of the US-provided High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, which has a range of about 80 kilometers, moving many of its ammunition depots and logistics bases further. Beyond that distance, Syrsky said.

When we speak of aviation, we do not refer to airplanes as such. “We are discussing aviation platforms equipped with a certain set of long-range missiles,” Syrsky explained. ” An increase in range will automatically reposition the front line, and the enemy’s capabilities will be drastically diminished.”

On the ground, Ukrainian tank crews have long craved modern tanks to give themselves an advantage over the Russians and better protect themselves if hit.

Washington’s plan to expedite the handover of the Abrams was greeted with moderate enthusiasm by the leaders of the 17th Separate Tank Brigade.

In an interview in the eastern Donetsk region, where he is posted, the chief of staff of the 1st Tank Battalion, also known as Wolf, stated, “It’s only meaningful if they distribute additional M1A2s in the future.”

“They are probably choosing not to give us their best weapons immediately but to do it step by step,” Wolf said, referring to the Pentagon’s decision to ship older model M1A1 Abrams tanks more quickly instead of providing the more advanced variant, whose construction it could have taken a year or more.

For now, the Ukrainians operate with a hodgepodge of their own Soviet-era equipment and captured armor from the Russians.

The T-64, the workhorse of the Ukrainian tank fleet, entered service in the 1960s, and tanks built on that model have since received better armor and electronics. Yet, according to the soldiers, even these enhancements cannot match with Western tanks like the Abrams, which are equipped with modern optics and other technologies.

The crews and mechanics of the Ukrainian military are familiar with older tanks like the T-64 and T-72, which provides an advantage over Western systems. One soldier said a T-64 could be quickly fixed with “[dirt] on a stick,” using an expletive to describe how soldiers do field repairs with few resources.

The Pentagon claims that the Abrams is a logistical nightmare, and they are worried that the Ukrainians will struggle to keep them up and running. “The Abrams tank is a pretty difficult piece of equipment,” Kahl told reporters in January.”It is expensive. It is difficult to train. It has a jet engine. I think it uses about three gallons per mile for jet fuel. It’s not the easiest system to maintain.”

We really don’t know where this conflict will be six months from now,” Rizzo said, implying that the United States should not rush to hand over the Abrams.

Several government officials and diplomats have admitted that Ukraine has paid the price for the West’s tactics, but they argue that it represented the political reality of building a large international coalition.

“I’m sure it would have been nice to be where we are now six months ago,” Mark Gitenstein, the US ambassador to the European Union, told reporters late last month. “And I think it would have made a difference. But I don’t think it was possible to make it move faster than [Biden] was able to. And he also had to convince the American people.