The war in Ukraine reached a crucial moment

This pivotal moment could also present a difficult decision for Western governments, which have hitherto offered assistance to Ukraine at an ever-increasing cost to their own economies and national arms stocks.

“I think you’re getting close to the point where one side or the other will be successful,” said a senior NATO official. “Either the Russians will reach Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, or the Ukrainians will stop them here.

Three possible outcomes

Western officials are closely watching three possible scenarios that they believe could unfold:

Russia could continue to make incremental gains in two key eastern provinces. Or the battle lines could harden into a stalemate that drags on for months or years, resulting in huge casualties on both sides and a slowly unfolding crisis that will continue to weigh on the global economy.

Then there’s what officials believe to be the most unlikely possibility: Russia could redefine its war aims, announce it has achieved victory, and seek to end the fighting. For now, that scenario seems little more than wishful thinking, sources say.

If Russia is able to consolidate some of its gains in the east, US officials are increasingly concerned that Russian President Vladimir Putin could eventually use this area as a base to push further into Ukraine.
“I’m sure if Ukraine isn’t strong enough, they will go further,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned Tuesday, urging the West to send more weapons faster. “We showed them our strength. And it is important that this strength is also demonstrated by our western partners together with us.”

Western military aid must “come faster” if Ukraine’s allies want to curb Russia’s territorial ambitions.

Western officials generally believe that Russia is in a more favorable position in the East simply because of sheer size. Still, “Russian progress is not a foregone conclusion,” said a senior Biden administration official.

As the frontlines of the conflict have morphed into a war of attrition built around artillery fire, both sides have suffered huge casualties and now face potential manpower shortages. Russia has also suffered casualties of up to a third of its ground forces, and US intelligence officials have publicly stated that without full mobilization Russia will struggle to make any serious gains, a politically dangerous move Putin has so far been unwilling to take.

At the moment, fighting is concentrated in two sister cities on opposite sides of the Seversky Donets River, Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk. Ukrainian fighters are almost completely surrounded at Sievierodonetsk.

Black smoke and debris billow from the nearby city of Severodonetsk during the battle between Russian and Ukrainian troops in eastern Ukraine's Donbass region on June 9, 2022.

Although Western analysts believe Ukraine has a better chance of defending Lysychansk, which sits on high ground, there are already worrying signs that Russia is attempting to cut the city’s supply lines by advancing from the southeast.

“In many ways, the fate of our Donbass will be decided around these two cities,” Zelenskyy said last week.

A fondness for Soviet systems

US officials insist Western arms are still flowing to the frontlines of the battle. But local reports of gun shortages — and frustrated pleas from Ukrainian officials on the front lines — have raised questions about how effectively the supply lines are working. Not only has Ukraine been begging for heavy artillery, but for even more basic supplies like ammunition.

Part of the problem, sources say, is that while Ukraine is running out of old Soviet ammunition that fits into existing systems, there have also been barriers to converting its fighters to Western, NATO-compliant systems. For one thing, training soldiers on these systems takes time—and removes needed fighters from the battlefield.

In some cases, Ukraine is simply choosing not to use the unfamiliar Western systems, according to a source familiar with US intelligence agencies. For example, despite receiving hundreds of Switchblade drones, some units prefer to use commercial drones equipped with explosives that are easier to use.

The Biden administration announced a new relief package earlier this month that included the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systemor HiMARS, which is capable of launching a barrage of rockets and missiles, and which Ukraine had been urging for weeks. But although a small group of Ukrainian soldiers began training on the system almost immediately after the package was announced, it requires three weeks of training and has not yet entered combat. The senior defense official would only say that the system is entering Ukraine “soon”.
The US is preparing to approve an advanced long-range missile system for Ukraine as the Russian TV host warns against crossing a 'red line'.

In the meantime, there are a limited number of Soviet-era munitions that remain elsewhere in the world that can be sent to Ukraine. The US is urging nations with older stockpiles to figure out what they have available to Ukraine, but the grueling artillery fight is “wiping Soviet stuff off the face of the earth” for Ukraine and the allies who supply it, according to a US official.

Although the US has a clear picture of Russian battlefield losses, it has struggled to assess Ukraine’s combat strength from the start. Officials have conceded that the US does not have a clear picture of where Western weapons are going or how effectively they will be used once they cross the border into Ukraine — making intelligence predictions about the difficult fighting and political decisions about how and when the Ukraine should be supplied again just as delicate.

The senior Biden administration official told CNN that the US is trying to “better understand its [the Ukrainians’] Consumption rate and operational pace” when specifically asked if Ukraine is running out of ammunition and weapons. “It’s hard to know,” said this person. Much of it is being moved in and out of the country for repairs.

That blind spot is partly because Ukraine doesn’t tell the West everything, Western officials say. And because the fighting is concentrated in such a small area relatively close to Russia, Western intelligence agencies don’t have the same visibility as elsewhere.

“If you get down to the tactical level, especially where most of the fighting is happening, it’s further from us, closer to Russia, and the forces are closer together and very, very close,” said a senior official NATO official. “It is therefore difficult to get an accurate picture of the status of the occasional fighting in the East.”

It is also difficult to predict how Ukraine’s military will fare at this crucial moment, as hastily trained civilian volunteers are being sent into battle amid the mounting casualties, the NATO official added. Her performance under fire is an unknown quantity.

“It’s one thing to have people available, but the question is, are they ready for the fight? I think you’ll see that as a factor,” the official said.

Predicting Putin’s next move

Meanwhile, US and other Western officials see no sign that Putin’s commitment to continuing the costly war has waned.

“Regarding the strategic goals that we believe Putin has towards Ukraine, I don’t see any signs that these have changed,” the NATO official said. “Putin still believes that at some point he will succeed and either physically control Ukraine either in a significant part or ideally in its entirety, or gain some form of political control.”

But even if Putin’s commitment remains adamant, there is a growing awareness that that of the West may not be the case.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a joint news conference with Turkmen President Serdar Berdimuhamedov after their meeting in Moscow, Russia, June 10, 2022.

As the fighting has dragged on, the cost to Western governments has continued to mount. Some Western governments — including the United States — are concerned that the flow of donated arms to Ukraine has depleted national stockpiles vital to their own defense.

“It’s a legitimate concern” for the United States, the senior government official conceded.

Added to this, of course, are the high energy prices and high inflation. As those costs begin to affect ordinary citizens in the US and Europe, and media attention gradually strays from the daily grind of the fighting, some officials worry that Western support for Ukraine may wane.

The spokesman for Ukraine’s military international legion on Monday ridiculed a “sense of complacency” among Ukraine’s military patrons, saying the country needs much more support if it is to defeat the Russian invasion.

“Our Western partners seem to have been overcome by a certain complacency that the arms shipments that Ukraine has already been supplied with are somehow enough to win the war,” Damien Magrou, spokesman for the International Legion for the Defense of Ukraine, said during a press conference.

“They’re not! They don’t come close to doing anything that would even remotely allow us to defeat the Russians on the battlefield.”

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