The war in Ukraine has turned into a grinding artillery contest where Russia is steadily gaining ground thanks to its overwhelming advantage in firepower. As the U.S. and allies gather Wednesday to discuss fresh military aid to Kyiv, Ukraine’s fate will largely depend on how fast and in what quantities these heavy weapons arrive.
Without a broad and rapid increase in military assistance, Ukraine faces a defeat in the eastern Donbas region, Ukrainian officials warn. That would pave the way for Russia to pursue its offensive to Odessa and Kharkiv after regrouping in coming months, they say, and potentially all the way back to the capital, Kyiv, after that.
Western officials and analysts question whether Russia has the wherewithal to achieve this, even if it makes further gains in the Donbas area. They say Russia’s military has been severely battered in the war, and might lack the manpower and equipment to advance beyond the Donbas region soon.
Yet Russia still enjoys a significant superiority over Ukraine in artillery and armor. Ukrainian forces estimate that they have one artillery piece per 10 to 20 Russian ones on the front lines, with each of these guns allotted only a fraction of the ammunition at the Russian gunners’ disposal. As a result, every day that Western heavy-weapons supplies are delayed is measured in hundreds of Ukrainian casualties, they say.
While Kyiv was initially cagey about its losses, unwilling to dent the population’s morale, Ukraine’s government now acknowledges that the country’s military is losing between 100 and 200 soldiers killed in action each day, with about five times that number injured daily.
“In this war, the victory will be with the side that has more and better weapons. And, if Ukraine doesn’t obtain enough weapons in time, it will bleed out,” said Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is slated to host the third Ukraine Contact Group conference of defense ministers and top military officers from North Atlantic Treaty Organization members and other allies and partners in Brussels on Wednesday, looking into how best to help the Ukrainian military at this stage of the war.
At the start of the month, President Biden released $700 million in new weapons deliveries to Ukraine, the first slice of a $40 billion aid package authorized by Congress that includes as much as $19 billion in military assistance. That would bring the total to $5.3 billion of U.S. weapons supplied to Ukraine since the invasion. The U.K., Poland, the Baltic states and other allies have also made weapons deliveries.
These weapons, particularly the antitank and antiaircraft missiles, played a critical role in enabling Ukraine to withstand the onslaught on Kyiv in the first weeks of the war, precipitating a Russian withdrawal from northern Ukraine in late March. Moscow has reorganized its forces since then to focus on seizing all of the Donbas region, using heavy artillery to blast its way from one town to another.
Russian President Vladimir Putin in February recognized the independence of the Moscow-created proxy states in the Donbas area and no longer acknowledges the region as part of Ukraine. He also began issuing Russian passports and introduced the ruble in occupied parts of southern Ukraine’s Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, where Russian-appointed authorities say they are working on referendums to annex these territories to Russia.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said that the war won’t end until Russia withdraws from all the territories it occupied since the invasion began on Feb. 24. If Ukraine is sufficiently armed to defend itself, this goal is realistic, some Western military experts say.
“I do believe that by the end of this calendar year the Ukrainian forces are going to drive the Russian forces back to the Feb. 23 line,” said retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, a former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe who is now with the Center for European Policy Analysis. But to achieve this, he said, Ukraine must get enough Western long-range artillery and rocket systems, as well as the necessary ammunition. “If we fail to do that…then this is going to go on for potentially years,” Gen. Hodges said.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak published a wish list of weapons Monday that he said would help Ukraine end the war, including 1,000 howitzers, 300 multiple-launch rocket systems and 500 tanks.
“We are waiting for a decision,” he wrote on Twitter.
Russia has suffered extensive losses in the conflict, with Western governments estimating that as many as 20,000 Russian soldiers have been killed—and multiples of that number injured. Kyiv has put the number of Russian fatalities at 32,000. While Moscow stopped updating its toll after acknowledging 1,351 military fatalities on March 25, many more individual death notices came out after that, including for several generals and commanders of battalions and brigades.
Oryx, an open-source intelligence platform, has documented visual evidence of Russia losing 767 tanks, 422 armored fighting vehicles, 116 armored personnel carriers, 64 towed and 121 self-propelled artillery pieces, 79 multiple-launch rocket-system platforms, 46 helicopters and 31 warplanes since the invasion began. The real toll is likely higher as not all the losses can be documented.
Unlike Ukraine, which can count on weapons supplies from the West, Russia has limited ability to replenish its stocks, especially as its military industry is hampered by Western sanctions. In recent weeks, the Russian military has started to send into battle obsolete T-62 tanks because so many of its more modern tanks have been destroyed by Ukrainian artillery and drones. “I believe that the Russians are actually exhausted,” Gen. Hodges said.
Despite such setbacks, Moscow retains a huge advantage in armor, artillery, aircraft and missiles over Ukraine, said John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Kyiv now with the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington.
“The terrain in the east favors those Russian advantages. It’s open. There is no question that the Russians have made incremental gains in the last few weeks,” he said.
Ukraine, unlike Russia, doesn’t have the capacity to manufacture ammunition for Soviet-legacy heavy weapons that make up the bulk of its forces, and is running out of stocks, Ukrainian officials say. While artillery shells and mortars can be procured in Eastern Europe, the shortage is particularly acute for multiple-launch rocket systems such as Uragan and Smerch.
At the current rate of advance, absent a sizable increase in Western weapons deliveries, it would likely take the Russians until August or September to take all of the Donbas region, Ukrainian officials estimate. While economic sanctions have made life more difficult for Moscow, especially when it comes to securing Western technology, high oil prices mean that Mr. Putin can afford to continue the war.
Russia’s current-account surplus rose to $110.3 billion in the first four months of the year from $32.1 billion in the same period last year, according to the central bank. The International Monetary Fund forecasts that Russia’s economy will shrink this year by 8.5%, while Ukraine’s will shrivel by 35%. Russian missile strikes have systematically targeted Ukraine’s industrial facilities, oil refineries and transport infrastructure, while a Russian naval blockade has prevented most exports of Ukrainian wheat.
If Russia secures the Donbas region, Mr. Putin might pause the offensive to regroup and rearm, Ukrainian officials estimate. A cease-fire that some European politicians are proposing, and that would maintain Russian control over southern Ukraine, could last several months or even years.
But that pause would be just a prelude to a fiercer assault, they say, as Mr. Putin’s strategic goal—seizing Kyiv and eliminating Ukraine as a sovereign state—remains unchanged.
“They will keep going until someone stops them,” said Ukraine’s former defense minister, Andriy Zagorodnyuk, who advises President Zelensky’s government. “Some people still think that the Russians can be stopped with talks, with concessions. No, they can only be stopped with weapons—of which we are not receiving enough. This is the crux of the problem.”
After initially refraining from supplying Ukraine with Western heavy weapons out of fears about Moscow’s reaction, the U.S. and allies in late April began to ship NATO-standard 155 mm artillery systems and 155 mm ammunition, with more than 100 of these guns already reaching the battlefield. Poland has also shipped hundreds of Soviet-designed T-72 tanks, while the U.S. and the U.K. are preparing the transfer of some long-range multiple-launch rocket-system, or MLRS, platforms.
Yet, amid the most intensive military conflict that Europe has witnessed since World War II, those supplies haven’t been anywhere near sufficient to offset the thousands of weapons systems that Russia has poured into the Donbas front.
Officials in the West have been cautious—analysts such as Gen. Hodges and Mr. Herbst say too cautious—about increasing support for Ukraine lest it lead Russia to escalate its offensive, for example by using battlefield nuclear weapons. The critics doubt such a step would aid Russia strategically in the campaign.
The NATO artillery systems—particularly the Caesar self-propelled guns provided by France—are much more accurate than most guns in Russia’s arsenal. This means that a Ukrainian artillery battery can achieve with one or two shots the same result for which Russian gunners expend dozens or hundreds of shells.
But, with the maximum range of as much as 25 miles, according to Ukrainian officials, these artillery pieces remain vulnerable to Russian Smerch MLRS platforms that can hit from as far as 50 miles away.
Ukrainian officials have been asking the U.S. and allies for Western-made MLRS platforms since the war began, but it was only this month that the Biden administration decided to send four high-mobility artillery rocket-system, or Himars, platforms and guided multiple-launch rocket-system rockets with a range exceeding 40 miles. The U.K. has agreed to supply three M270 MLRS systems with a 50-mile range.
While Washington has indicated that the four pledged Himars are just an initial tranche, the U.S. hasn’t specified the time frame and scope of future deliveries. “They are giving us four pieces, but what is needed is a couple of hundred. We don’t know how many more will come, when they will come, and so we cannot plan ahead—which is a problem,” said Mr. Zagorodnyuk.
The Russian advances in the Donbas region have been relatively slow, with Russian forces battling for the town of Severodonetsk, the administrative center of the Ukrainian-controlled Luhansk region, since early May.
Yet, since withdrawing troops from Kyiv and the rest of northern Ukraine to focus on the Donbas region, Russia has managed to score significant advances, seizing the towns of Popasna, Kreminna and Rubizhne in the Luhansk region and Svyatohirsk and Svitlodarsk in the Donetsk region. With the exception of Svitlodarsk, which Ukrainian forces abandoned to avoid encirclement, almost all the areas taken by Russia have been rendered largely uninhabitable by shelling.
In a rare admission of how Russia is pursuing this war, Maksim Fomin, a military officer in the Russian proxy force in the Donetsk region who blogs under the pen name Vladlen Tatarsky, wrote that Russian artillery is inflicting wholesale destruction because of its inability to pinpoint Ukrainian defenders.
“Instead of a concrete target, the strikes target an entire neighborhood or forested area,” he wrote. “As a result, the advancing units are suffering losses, and cannot move forward until the entire area resembles a moon crater.”