WASHINGTON — As Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine approaches the two-year mark, Russian forces are making small advances in some locations along the 1,200-kilometer front as President Vladimir Putin throws more and more men into battle.
Since New Year’s, Russian forces have captured 707 square kilometers in eastern and southern Ukraine, according to the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War — an area about half the size of Los Angeles.
In the coming days or weeks, Russian troops could overrun the heavily damaged industrial city of Avdiyivka in the Donetsk region, marking Moscow’s first major victory since the capture of Bakhmut in May 2023.
Meanwhile, a potentially crucial battle is being fought in Washington, where U.S. President Joe Biden’s proposal for $60 billion in military aid for Kyiv has been stymied in Congress for months.
After multiple twists and turns, the fate of the weapons package remains clouded — and the effects are being felt at the front, where Ukrainian troops are forced to conserve firepower.
U.S. military aid slowed to a trickle at the end of last year and came to a halt in January as authorized Congressional funding ran out.
“The Ukrainians are obviously suffering from shell hunger,” George Barros, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), told RFE/RL. “They are running low on critical supplies and the Russians understand that and timed their counteroffensive in order to capitalize on the situation.”
He was referring to small-scale advances Russian forces have made around Avdiyivka and in several other locations since Ukraine’s own counteroffensive, launched last June, fizzled out in the fall after falling far short of its objectives.
Russian forces are currently firing ammunition at about five times the rate of their Ukrainian counterparts, Michael Kofman, a military analyst at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in a podcast published on January 30.
That rate had been two to one in Ukraine’s favor last summer, Kofman said.
If Congress does not pass a new aid package, U.S. military equipment deliveries to Ukraine will fall 80 to 90 percent by the summer of 2024, Mark Cancian, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told RFE/RL. The flow of U.S. military aid peaked last summer at about $1.5 billion a month, he said.
Deliveries will not run entirely dry anytime soon: Even though the United States has allocated all the funding approved by Congress, it takes months or even years for some of the military aid to arrive — so weapons and other items needed on the battlefield will continue to make their way to Ukraine throughout the year, Cancian said.
But if further aid is not approved, “Ultimately it will have a huge impact,” he said. “Armies in conflict need a continuous flow of replacement weapons, ammunition and supplies to keep operating. Ultimately, their line would crack in some place.”
Cancian said the war could progress along the lines of the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939-40. The Finns initially inflicted heavy losses on the larger Soviet force but Moscow “kept on hammering at the line and the Finnish lines were breaking.
“That is when the Finns made the peace deal,” he said, suggesting that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s government could come under increasing pressure to seek a cease-fire agreement with Russia, which currently occupies about 20 percent of Ukraine.
Many in Ukraine, and among its backers abroad, warn that forging an agreement that leaves Russia in control of a chunk of Ukraine would weaken the West and encourage Moscow to seek more gains later.
Zelenskiy has vowed regain control over all of Ukraine, but the military is facing manpower shortages in addition to a deficit of ammunition, and that goal seems far out of reach for now.
General Valeriy Zaluzhniy, who was dismissed by Zelenskiy on February 8 from his post as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, said in an article published last week that Kyiv must change its fighting strategy in the face of a “reduction in military support from key allies.”
Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022, the United States has approved four aid packages for Ukraine totaling $113 billion. More than half of that has been allocated for defense needs, such as anti-tank weapons, air defense systems, long-range rockets, armored vehicles, and large quantities of 155-millimeter ammunition.
In August, as the fourth package approached depletion amid Ukraine’s counteroffensive, the Biden administration asked Congress to approve a fifth support bill totaling $24 billion.
Right-wing Republicans in the House of Representatives balked, demanding that any aid to Ukraine be tied to immigration reform and greater funding for the U.S. border with Mexico. Biden later proposed a package that included about $60 billion for Ukraine aid as well as billions of dollars for Israel and Taiwan, while also funding border security and immigration reform.
On February 7, after four months of bipartisan negotiations and several concessions by the White House on border security, Republicans shot that bill down.
In a speech to the nation a day earlier, as the fate of the bipartisan bill became clear, Biden accused the Republicans of seeking to kill the legislation at the behest of former President Donald Trump, who is on track for the Republican nomination to challenge him in the November 2024 election.
“The clock is ticking,” Biden said. “Every week, every month that passes without new aid for Ukraine means fewer artillery shells, fewer air defense systems, fewer tools for Ukraine to defend itself against this Russian onslaught. Just what Putin wants.”
Valeriy Chaliy, who served as Ukraine’s ambassador to Washington from 2015 to 2019, told RFE/RL that the reputation of the United States is on the line. If Congress fails to pass an aid bill for allies, authoritarian governments such as those in China, Iran, Russia, and North Korea will “see America’s weakness,” he said.
Eager to secure the long-stalled aid for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan, Democrats have proposed a modified bill, stripped of the immigration reform, and the Senate agreed on moving it toward a vote, which could take place next week.
Even if it passes the upper chamber, however, experts say the modified bill will face a tough battle in the House of Representatives, where Republicans hold a slim majority.
‘They Need This Stuff Now’
Meanwhile, Russia has stepped up its ground and air assaults, including attacks aimed at undermining Ukraine’s own ability to make weapons. It has been targeting Ukrainian military units and weapons production sites with missiles and drones, U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters on February 6.
Russia is trying “to eliminate Ukraine’s ability to organically produce many of the munitions that they need to defend themselves,” Kirby said, adding that the barrage of missiles is forcing Ukraine to use its stock of air defense munitions at a fast clip.
“Part of the [Russian] tactic here is to throw metal into the sky, knowing that the Ukrainians are going to have to throw metal back at it, and that there’s not a steady stream or reliable stream of backfill for that air defense capabilities,” he said, suggesting it was crucial to get Ukraine air defense and ammunition.
“We know for a fact that some of their battlefield commanders on the ground are making tough decisions about how many munitions they’re going to fire on a given day at a given target…. They need this stuff now,” he said.
Cancian said that the United States has been ramping up weapons production and should have stockpiles of ammunition and other supplies that can be shipped quickly to Ukraine if Congress approves new aid.
European Union countries are also stepping up to the plate, rebuilding their “atrophied” defense industrial base in part to support Ukraine, Barros said. Some companies in the EU — as well as in the United States — are planning to produce weapons in Ukraine to reduce Kyiv’s dependence on fickle foreign aid.
Barros said the Europeans are doing as much as they can at the moment, with some countries surpassing the United States in aid in gross domestic product (GDP) and per capita terms.
Nonetheless, Ukraine “can’t rely exclusively on Europe at this point. The United States is in a unique position to be able to help keep Ukraine in the fight,” he said.