Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s whirlwind tour of European capitals last week to press allies for modern, long-range weapons was only partly successful.
Ukraine’s president extracted a pledge from the UK to start training Ukrainian fighter pilots. Britain also made a vague offer of “long-range capabilities”. France, Germany and other allies in the EU were less forthcoming, rebuffing Zelenskyy’s pleas for fighter aircraft while ruling nothing out. Ukraine had more pressing military needs, President Emmanuel Macron said.
Undeterred, Ukraine on Friday made a formal request to the Netherlands for the transfer of F-16 fighter jets. Ukrainian defence minister Oleksiy Reznikov is set to meet Nato defence ministers in Brussels on Tuesday with the aim to secure “an aviation platform” to protect Ukrainian skies, as well as more tanks and ammunition, he wrote on social media.
Artillery and ammunition are Kyiv’s most urgent demands, which deputy prime minister Olha Stefanishyna told the Financial Times it needed “immediately”.
So why is Zelenskyy setting so much store on weaponry that could take months if not years to arrive on the battlefield?
It would take six months to train even experienced pilots how to fly an F-16 or another multirole jet and master its weapon systems. American-built M1 Abrams tanks, which are being supplied directly by the manufacturer General Dynamics, are unlikely to be delivered before 2024. Even the refurbished Leopard 1 and 2 tanks may take several months to arrive in the numbers promised.
One reason Ukraine is pressing these demands is that it will inevitably have to switch away from Soviet-era equipment for which there are few and finite sources of ammunition and spare parts. Ukraine began the switch to Nato-standard artillery last summer with the first deliveries of US howitzers.
A senior artillery officer last week told Ukrainska Pravda, a news outlet, that Ukraine’s armed forces were now firing more Nato-standard 155mm shells than 152mm Soviet-standard munitions, a tipping point in Ukraine’s transition to western-standard kit.
Another reason is that Ukraine may be able to use its existing stocks of weaponry more freely if it knows it has replacement equipment arriving at a later date. It can throw more of its Soviet-era tanks into efforts to fend off an imminent Russian offensive, and then use its Leopards and Challengers in its expected counter-offensive later this spring.
But Ukraine is also fighting a war of narratives with Russia and just as the Kremlin is telling the Russia people and the world to steel for a long conflict, Kyiv is trying to demonstrate its own resolve — and that of its supporters. Sending modern fighter jets would be a demonstration of the west’s commitment, said Yuriy Sak, adviser to Ukraine’s defence minister.
“It would send a powerful message to the aggressor, saying that for Russia this is an unwinnable and unsustainable war because the free nations of the world will stand with Ukraine until victory and will provide Ukraine with all the necessary means that Ukraine needs to achieve this victory soon,” Sak said.
Zelenskyy’s intensive lobbying for armaments is partly a response to Russia’s willingness to expend large numbers of its own troops on the battlefield, often for limited gains, said officials and analysts. Moscow mobilised some 300,000 men from September after Ukrainian forces smashed through its thin defensive lines in the north-east of the country to liberate thousands of square kilometres of territory. Now Russia appears to have no shortage of troops to throw into battle.
“The two sets of forces and the associated operational concepts are looking very different,” Sir Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London, wrote in a comment on Substack. “Russian forces are relying increasingly on sheer weight of numbers while Ukraine’s are relying more on the quality that comes with advanced western systems.”
In the fierce fighting for Bakhmut, in the Donbas region, Russian commanders have been sending waves of lightly armed recruits to probe for weaknesses in Ukrainian positions before they are gunned down. The tactics are reminiscent of the first world war but also of Soviet commanders who readily threw their men into battle no matter the human cost.
“The Russians’ strategy is to show it is much more resilient to casualties than Ukraine,” said Oleksandr V Danylyuk, head of the Centre for Defence Reforms, a think-tank in Kyiv. “That’s why they are ready to sacrifice as many of their troops as they need to.”
Moscow was using its human waves approach on the front lines because it was “detecting the western support was less and less limited”, Danylyuk added.
Many of the Russians killed in the battle for Bakhmut are believed to have been criminals recruited from prisons by the Wagner private military company. Last summer, it was conscripts from the occupied provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk who suffered horrific casualties fighting Kyiv’s forces.
On his visit to the UK last week, Zelenskyy said that unless Ukraine was given advanced, long-range weaponry including fighter jets, the war could turn into a “stalemate” because of Moscow’s willingness to send so many of its men to die.
“Russia has no pity for its own people,” Zelenskyy said. “They keep on throwing people into the battlefield. We have pity. We protect our people.”