Heavy weaponry pours into Ukraine as commanders become more desperate
Western countries are rushing heavy weaponry to Ukraine as the war enters what promises to be a deadly, and potentially protracted, new phase.
Those deliveries are coming amid increasingly desperate pleas from Ukrainian battlefield commanders as they endure withering Russian artillery and rocket fire that could last weeks or months.
Over the past two weeks, the Biden administration began shipping out $1.2 billion worth of howitzers, around 200,000 artillery rounds, armored vehicles, counter-battery radars and experimental new armed drones capable of flying into targets. The deliveries are a significant advance from the small arms and Javelin anti-tank armor shipments that dominated the first eight weeks of fighting, and which helped stave off Russian thrusts toward the capital of Kyiv in the early days of the invasion.
On Friday, France and Canada unveiled new plans to send long-range artillery systems for the first time, and the U.K. is looking to backfill heavy armor to Poland as Warsaw contemplates sending Polish tanks to Ukraine.
On Sunday, during a surprise trip to Kyiv by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the U.S. announced more than $300 million in foreign military financing to allow Ukraine to purchase more sophisticated weapons, along with an additional $165 million for ammunition.
The rapid shift in aid reflects the recognition that the new fight will likely be dominated by artillery barrages and tank battles as infantry units square off over the flat fields of eastern Ukraine. But getting these new weapons to the front quickly will prove critical in the coming days.
As the war changes its character, a wave of Russian steel has been taking aim at Ukrainian units holding the line north of the besieged city of Mariupol, where a few hundred troops continue to make a last desperate stand on the grounds of the Azovstal steel plant.
Eighty miles north of the city, First Lt. Ivan Skuratovsky, serving in the 25th Airborne Brigade, told POLITICO that help needs to come immediately.
“The situation is very bad, [Russian forces] are using scorched- earth tactics,” the 31-year-old married father of two said via text. “They simply destroy everything with artillery, shelling day and night,” he said via text.
He fears that if reinforcements in the form of manpower and heavy weaponry — particularly air support — don’t arrive in the next few days, his troops could find themselves in the same position as those in Mariupol.
Skuratovsky described his soldiers’ situation as “very desperate.”
“I don’t know how much strength we will have,” he said, adding that the troops under his command around the city of Avdiivka, near Donetsk, have gone without rest since the start of the war. At least 13 of them have been wounded in recent weeks, he said, and they are running dangerously low on ammunition, reduced to rationing bullets.
The day before, he told POLITICO his soldiers were being bombarded with Russian howitzers, mortars and multiple-launch rocket systems “at the same time.” Just hours earlier, he said, they had been attacked by two Su-25 warplanes, “and our day became hell.”
Skuratovsky had a message for the United States and other NATO countries: “I would like to tell them that grenade launchers are good, but against airstrikes and heavy artillery we will not be able to hold out for long. People can no longer endure daily bombardments. We need air support now. We need drones.”
Caught in a pincer
The lieutenant’s pleas match those of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has for weeks demanded that Western countries step up their support as this new phase of the Russian war gets underway. The calls come as the Kremlin struggles to switch tactics from small unit attacks in the north in favor of devastating artillery barrages aimed at flattening towns and Ukrainian positions, unconcerned with — or perhaps purposefully looking for — civilian casualties.
The message is getting through to Western leaders, albeit slowly.
Ukrainian officials have been calling for heavy weapons and jet fighters since the Feb. 24 Russian invasion, but the Kremlin’s decision to pull its troops from around the capital of Kyiv and make one concerted push in the east and south has clearly caught the attention of Western powers.
Russian forces appear to be positioning for a pincer movement launched from the north and south that would trap at least 30,000 Ukrainian troops in the east, and possibly cut them off from resupply. As of now, weapons and aid are getting through, but as this new, more destructive phase of the Russian assault begins, counter attacking from a distance will likely be key to Ukrainian success.
Artillery has been a critical piece in the Ukrainian resistance thus far in the war, and volunteer units have effectively used commercial and homemade drones to spot Russian positions and walk in accurate artillery strikes on armored columns.
Along with the howitzers and armored vehicles, the U.S. is also sending a new capability. The new package includes 121 Phoenix Ghost drones that can fly for six hours, including at night, spotting Russian positions before being flown into a target where an embedded warhead will detonate. The drones have only been developed and built over the past several months, and the Ukrainian troops about to fly them will be the first ever to put them to use on the battlefield.
“Loitering munitions can be a significant advantage though, and the Ukrainians have proven themselves to be pretty adaptable and creative. They could make a real difference,” Rob Lee, a military analyst and a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia Program, told POLITICO.
Skuratovsky said his soldiers, who have just one quadcopter drone at their position that can be rigged to drop a small grenade, would benefit greatly from receiving the Ghost drones, which would allow them to strike Russian artillery targeting them.
On Friday, France announced it was supplying several Caesar self-propelled howitzers to Ukraine and is now training 40 Ukrainian soldiers in France on how to use the powerful guns mounted on the back of a six-wheeled truck.
The Caesar, which the French have used in Afghanistan and have sold to NATO allies, has a range of 24 to 34 miles, giving Ukrainian forces the ability to lob accurate fire at significant distances. “We stand with the Ukrainian people,” the French defense ministry said in a statement on Friday.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also suggested Friday that his government is considering a deal that would send British tanks to Poland, if Warsaw decides to send some of its Soviet-era T-72 tanks to Ukraine. Poland would be following the lead of the Czech Republic, which recently supplied some of its own T-72s, which the Ukrainians know how to operate.
The Kremlin has repeatedly threatened to hit the convoys of trucks coming across the Polish border full of weapons, which now include — or are about to include — much larger cargo loads, including cannons, large armored vehicles, and spare parts for Ukrainian MiG fighter planes. Western officials have long been cagey about these shipments, but so far the deliveries have arrived intact, allowing Kyiv to resupply troops along the line of contact.
A senior U.S. Defense Department official estimated this week that “the Ukrainians have more tanks in Ukraine than the Russians do,” given the huge losses Russian armor have taken as a result of Ukrainian artillery and shoulder-fired anti-armor attacks.
The Mariupol resistance
That aid will be welcome, but it may be too late for the Ukrainian troops who have fought for weeks in brutal house-to-house combat in Mariupol, where 11 Russian battalion tactical groups — units of several hundred soldiers backed by tanks, rocket artillery and armed infantry vehicles — have been tied down cornering a fierce resistance.
Maj. Serhiy Volyna, commander of the Ukrainian forces in Mariupol, huddled inside the besieged steel plant, delivered a blunt video message last week about the prospects for his men. Speaking directly into the camera, he delivered a desperate plea for heavy weapons from the West to keep the strategic city from falling to Russia.
“Enemy forces are 10 times bigger than ours,” Volyna said in a video he shared with POLITICO and other media and later posted to his Facebook page. “We are probably facing our last days, if not hours.”
Volyna and his troops of the 36th Separate Marine Brigade have endured two months of fighting and are now stuck inside the underground tunnels and bunkers of the sprawling plant with hundreds of wounded fighters and more than 1,000 desperate civilians. He said if weapons don’t come, then an emergency airlift will be necessary to keep those people from being killed.
“Take us to the territory of a third country,” he pleaded to Western nations. On Thursday, Ukrainian efforts to get Russia to open a “green corridor” and allow the encircled troops and civilians to escape safely fell apart. And Russian President Vladimir Putin told his defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, to blockade the Azovstal plant “so that even a fly can’t get out.”
Keeping that much infantry and armor locked in place inside the city has slowed Russian Gen. Aleksandr Dvornikov’s planned advance in the east. But with the Kremlin now declaring the Mariupol fight a victory, those troops will likely be redirected to push on Ukrainian positions holding the line west and north of the city.
A British intelligence assessment released Friday says that Putin’s decision to blockade the Azovstal steel plant instead of taking it “likely indicates a desire to contain Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol and free up Russian forces to be deployed elsewhere in eastern Ukraine. A full ground assault by Russia on the plant would likely incur significant Russian casualties, further decreasing their overall combat effectiveness.”
A new frontline fight
It’s not clear what the new rounds of heavy weapons heading to Ukraine will have on the fight, or how the Kremlin will react to bigger, more deadly aid flowing in from NATO countries.
“Once again [we are] witnessing that Putin is ready to use military force in order to obtain his geopolitical goals,” one Western diplomat told POLITICO on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues.
After months of warning of devastating sanctions if Russian troops crossed the border in Ukraine, allied countries are working to understand where Putin’s ambitions end now that he doesn’t appear to respond to deterrent threats. “Unfortunately, we are in a situation today where a military attack against the NATO countries is not impossible anymore,” the diplomat said.
Russian military leaders have already hinted that they intend to seize territory that would create a land bridge to Transnistria and potentially put Moldova at risk. President Joe Biden has promised to defend every inch of NATO territory, but increasingly it seems the first front in that war is inside Ukraine.
After weeks of denials that U.S. troops were actively training Ukrainian forces on the new weapons they’ve been receiving, officials have been more upfront about the efforts. A senior DoD official said Wednesday that American service members had begun training outside the country with more than 50 Ukrainian troops on 155mm howitzer artillery systems the Biden administration was providing as part of a recent aid package worth $800 million.
What the West is able to send to Ukraine and how quickly it gets there is likely to be a major factor in whether Ukraine’s motivated and agile military forces are able to free their trapped troops from the strategic city of Mariupol and keep Russian soldiers at bay elsewhere across an increasingly hot eastern front line.
That front snakes its way through a battleground as big as New Jersey, and has become the focus of Moscow’s attentions.
On April 18, Zelenskyy, his military chiefs and regional authorities announced that Russian forces had begun the operation in the east after amassing thousands more troops in the area. The next day, Moscow confirmed it had launched its new offensive operation.
“Another phase of this operation is starting now,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, using Moscow’s preferred term to describe its invasion of Ukraine.
Two weeks ago, Ukrainian forces armed with anti-tank American Javelin missiles and British NLAWs surprised the world when they forced a Russian retreat in the battle for Kyiv. The Kremlin’s announcement that it would pull back tens of thousands of troops from northern Kyiv and Chernihiv regions to refocus efforts on the Donbas marked a shift in the campaign’s strategic direction, and precipitated the Western effort to supply heavy artillery and spare parts for Ukrainian MiG fighter planes.
But if the Ukrainians had the upper hand in fights that unfolded in densely populated suburbs of the capital, the Russian army — with its deep supply of heavy guns that can be fired at a distance and self-propelled artillery that can move easily and more freely over wide-open fields — has an early advantage in the eastern steppe.
The Donbas region presents a dilemma, however. While open in many places, it is also heavily populated, meaning the Russians will still have to fight through urban terrain akin to that in the north, where Ukrainian forces drove them back with heavy losses.
“I expect Russia will have some success but it will probably be slow and costly. As long as Ukraine doesn’t allow a large chunk of its troops to be encircled, I don’t think Russia can achieve any kind of strategic gains,” Lee said.
Russian victories are starting to mount in these early days of the new operation.
Serhiy Haidai, the governor of the Luhansk region, said Ukrainian forces were forced to pull out of a town near the regional capital of Severodonetsk after weeks of intense Russian bombardments. Haidai pleaded with civilians living closest to the fighting in and around the towns of Popasna and Kreminna to leave, warning them that “Russians are killing everyone who is against them on the spot.”
Olena Symonenko, an aide in Zelenskyy’s administration, said in a television news broadcast on April 21 that 42 towns and villages had been captured by Russian forces during the new offensive.
Russian forces have also managed to take territory near the town of Izyum, which connects to the strategic cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk via highway. Terrified residents have fled those cities in recent days following a rocket attack on the Kramatorsk railway station that killed 59 people, including seven children, in one of the deadliest Russian strikes of the past two months.
But Ukraine’s modern army, including the forces that kept the Russians from encircling and seizing Kyiv, was shaped by the eight years of war in the Donbas and years of intensive training with NATO troops across Europe.
So while they might lack the advantages of concealment and surprise they had in close-quarter urban settings in the north, they continue fighting on their home turf, in positions fortified for over nearly a decade, and in a place where they cut their teeth.
Speaking to a Ukrainian member of parliament from inside the Azovstal factory on Sunday, Volyna said he and his troops were in a dire situation but they remained hopeful they might find a way out. He also expressed confidence in their ability to endure Russia’s attacks.
“It’s really difficult to defend yourself with a machine gun against bombers and cruise missiles, assault groups and dozens of tanks,” he said. “But we do it, one way or another.”