Anti-terrorist operation in eastern Ukraine Anti-terrorist operation in eastern Ukraine (Photo: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine on Flickr)

Despite the passage of new support for Ukraine in the US Congress, Ukraine has no prospect of winning the war with Russia, argues Chris Bambery

The United States House of Representatives has finally approved a $95 billion package of aid for Ukraine, which also includes further military support for Israel and Taiwan. The supply of US weapons to Ukraine dried up in early 2024, because the bill to grant more aid was delayed in Congress.

President Biden said after the vote that the US can now start sending armaments ‘right away’.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the commitment ‘reinforces America’s role as a beacon of democracy and leader of the free world.’ However, the bulk of this new money will go to US multinationals to produce weaponry which will take months to come off stretched production lines.

In February, the EU agreed a further €50bn (£42bn; $54bn) aid package for Ukraine, but the EU failed to meet its target of sending one million shells to Ukraine by the beginning of March. Consequently, the Czech Republic stepped in and agreed a $1.5bn deal for a group of 18 Nato and EU countries to buy 800,000 rounds – both 155mm and 122mm calibre – from outside the EU.

Money doesn’t fix it

But increasingly, mainstream military and diplomatic analysts are arguing Ukraine cannot win despite this money. Money cannot solve the fundamental problems undermining Ukraine’s capacity to wage war. Writing in the Financial Times, historian Lawrence Freedman pointed out:

‘It will take time to recover from the difficult first months of this year, and then more before Ukraine starts to benefit fully from new supplies of equipment and from increased European and US production of artillery shells. Fresh units need to be trained and there are still command issues left over from last year’s disappointing counteroffensive, notably about how to co-ordinate large-scale operations.’

The US has warned that Ukraine’s military is running short on munitions, and morale is low. Early in April, a Nato official warned CNN that the Ukrainian military is ‘experiencing shortages in air defense munitions, mostly in the medium to long range. It’s not just that we know that. It’s that Russia knows that. So, Russia is using drones and missiles in ways that are really explicitly designed to deplete Ukrainian air defense systems.’ The same Nato official also warned that Russia maintains a ‘significant quantitative advantage’ over Ukraine in terms of munitions, manpower, and equipment, and is likely recruiting roughly 30,000 additional personnel per month.

The same CNN article notes: ‘Ukraine has been rationing its air defences for about a month now, said another person familiar with western intelligence. The Ukrainians had limited systems to start with, including the US and German-provided Patriot systems around Kyiv, some S-200 and S-300 surface-to-air missile systems, and some older, retrofitted Soviet launchers that they have been using to fire western missiles like Sidewinders, this person said.’

Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has called the situation on the front line for Ukraine ‘difficult’ and ‘serious’. Biden is talking about supplying Patriot air-defence missiles to prevent Russia carrying such air attacks, but it has to have those built and it has to supply them to Israel too.

Russia is carrying out repeated air attacks on Ukraine’s second largest city Kharkiv, which is near the Russian border. The commander of Ukraine’s National Guard, Oleksandr Pivnenko, warns that Russian forces may start to advance on the city. The Ukrainians desperately need artillery shells in what has become a gruesome war of attrition, but the Americans and Europeans simply do not have sufficient capacity to replenish Ukrainian stocks.

In March, CNN reported that Russia is producing about 250,000 artillery munitions per month, or about three million a year, according to Nato intelligence estimates of Russian defence production. Together, the US and Europe have the capacity to generate only about 1.2 million munitions annually to send to Kyiv, a senior European intelligence official told CNN. ‘What we are in now is a production war,’ the senior Nato official stated, ‘The outcome in Ukraine depends on how each side is equipped to conduct this war.’

According to the UK-based think tank, the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), Ukrainian armed forces have been limited to firing 2,000 shells a day. In contrast, Rusi says, Russian forces have been firing up to 10,000 shells a day. It said Russia gets almost three-million shells a year from its own factories and from North Korea.

In testimony before Congress in April, General Christopher G. Cavoli, the top American military commander in Europe, provided a blunt assessment of Ukraine’s dire shortage of ammunition. He pointed out: ‘If one side can shoot and the other side can’t shoot back, the side that can’t shoot back loses.’ Ukraine has lost 583 square kilometres (225 square miles) of territory in the east of the country to Russian forces since October 2023, largely because of a lack of artillery. The Ukrainian high command blamed shortages for the loss of the town of Avdiivka in February. Between Avdiivka and the River Dnieper, Ukraine has few fixed, well-defended positions.


The Kyiv Independent reported thus on the fall of Avdiivka: ‘The price of the last-minute evacuation was heavy. The soldiers had to withdraw through a poorly prepared thin path with mines lying around and under heavy shelling west of the city. Some soldiers were given the order to withdraw at any cost, leaving the wounded and fallen comrades behind.’

At certain points, a war of attrition between well-defended positions can change into mobile warfare when the balance shifts in favour of one side. The advantage lies with Russia. To state that is not to side with Russia, whose invasion of Ukraine was criminal and who fought a brutal war – as indeed the Ukrainians have. The same Nato official who spoke to CNN said that the war has absolutely ‘transformed’ Russia’s economy, when oil was the leading sector. Now, the arms industry is the largest sector of the Russian economy, and oil is paying for it. ‘In the short term — say, the next 18 months or so — it may be unsophisticated, but it’s a durable economy,’ the Nato official said.

Even if the West could wave a magic wand and somehow supply all the weaponry Ukraine so badly needs, Ukraine is running out of troops. In April, the Ukrainian parliament passed a law lowering the conscription age to 25. Prior to the vote, General Yuriy Sodol, who commands troops in the Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Luhansk regions and was one of more than a dozen commanders present in parliament for the vote, told deputies it was crucial the law be passed. ‘We are maintaining our defences with our last strength,’ he said, adding that Russian forces outnumber Ukraine’s up to ten-fold on the battlefield in the east.

The Ukrainians are having to rely on infantry to hold their positions without much artillery, armoured or aerial support against waves of Russian infantry attacks. A squad of eight to ten soldiers is typically tasked with defending 100 meters of land, General Sodol said, but Ukraine cannot always field full squads. Faced with a shortage of troops, Ukraine has turned to what amounts to the press gang; forced conscription has already become a scourge all over Ukraine.

Al Jazeera reports: ‘In many rural areas, most men of fighting age have been drafted, while in urban centres potential soldiers avoid showing up in public places or using public transportation because of patrols of conscription officials and police officers. Some men are urged to go to conscription offices to simply clarify their personal details – but never come out in their civilian clothes.’ Some four-million people have fled Ukraine, including 800,000 liable for conscription. Ukraine has announced that unless they return, they will be denied consular support.

Last Autumn, the Warsaw-based Center for Eastern Studies (CES) reported on the growing troop shortage: ‘This shortage is exacerbated by the exhaustion of the troops deployed over the past two years, who, without relief, are staying longer and longer on the front. It is not uncommon for platoons to be made up of just a few soldiers and companies of less than 50 (which is less than half of their full line-up). According to regulations, this should result in their automatic withdrawal to the rear. In the current situation on the front, such sub-units usually cannot be relieved. Moreover, their defense sections are not reduced in proportion to their losses. The commanders are thus forced to require their subordinates to serve longer, which in turn reduces the time available for sleep, meals and basic hygiene.’

Another problem is the age of many Ukrainian troops: ‘Meanwhile, it is not uncommon for infantry companies in which the soldiers’ average age is 45–50 years to be dispatched to fight on the most difficult sections of the front, for example near Avdiivka and Bakhmut. The service of older soldiers on the first line of the front in a situation of prolonged trench warfare generates numerous problems, as these individuals are more prone to disease, less able to withstand physical strain, have slower reaction times and are more vulnerable to apathy and panic than younger soldiers.’

General Valery Zaluzhny, the country’s former commander in chief, had said Ukraine needed to call up as many as 500,000 fresh troops to counter Russia’s superior number of forces. It’s hard to see how that can be achieved. The Centre for Eastern Studies reported in February that ‘… 2023 saw a gradual decline in public sentiment regarding military service. Considering the present stabilisation of the front, the opportunities for a quick replenishment of the units with a large number of volunteers have become exhausted because the most recent inflow of volunteers occurred last year, as part of the enlistment campaign ahead of the summer offensive. Also, a sizeable group of citizens is reluctant to support the mobilisation, as they are aware of the magnitude of the losses and have been discouraged by reports of irregularities in the military, which are frequently exaggerated on social media.’

Western policy

There are Western claims that Russia wants to conquer all of Ukraine and to push on into the former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe. In fact, if the Russians reach the River Dnieper they will have achieved their aim. The mainstream US media is now full of reports arguing Ukraine can no longer win and that Russia is not going to hand back territory it has conquered or, like Crimea, annexed. The more optimistic argue Ukraine can sustain a war of attrition and eventually win. Most disagree. But even if we were to accept that forecast, it is a dreadful picture reminiscent of Verdun and the Somme in 1916.

Writing in Time magazine, Anatol Lieven, co-author of The Diplomatic Path to a Secure Ukraine, points out: ‘For Ukrainians to stand a chance, military history suggests that they would need a 3-to-2 advantage in manpower and considerably more firepower. Ukraine enjoyed these advantages in the first year of the war, but they now lie with Russia, and it is very difficult to see how Ukraine can recover them.’

Writing on Politico, Jamie Dettfield states: ‘Without a major step-change in the supply of advanced Western weapons and cash, Ukraine won’t be able to liberate the territories Putin’s forces now hold. That will leave Putin free to gnaw on the wounded country in the months or years ahead. Even if Russia can’t finish Ukraine off, a partial victory will leave Kyiv’s hopes of joining the EU and NATO stuck in limbo.’

This is not a good scenario in that it sets the stage for a future war, particularly if Ukraine was able to rebuild its economy and military. Within the Biden administration, there is growing scepticism about Ukraine’s ability to win its two-year war with Russia.

The Biden administration believes $60 billion will see Ukraine able to resist Russian advances through to the Presidential election in November. If – and it’s a big if – Biden is re-elected, it would be difficult to get a Republican-controlled Congress and Senate to pass a similar aid package. If Trump were to win, that could be a game changer in the US attitude to the Russo-Ukrainian war.

Surely it would be best to get peace talks going before that might happen. But Washington, London and Berlin are ruling this out. They will keep on doling out military aid, not in hope of Ukrainian victory, but to keep a war of attrition going and to feed more Ukrainians and Russians into the meat grinder, safe in the knowledge Americans, Britons and Germans will not be dying. It is a cynical and murderous policy.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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