Ceremony on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Photo: President of Ukraine, Ceremony on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Photo: President of Ukraine, Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Public Domain

Behind the belligerent rhetoric, the Ukraine war effort is petering out writes Chris Bambery

There is a mounting panic in European Chancelleries over Ukraine. The first reason for the panic is a growing realisation Ukraine cannot win the war with Russia and that its resistance might crumble.

Ukraine is desperately short of both manpower and ammunition. This was driven home by the bloody Ukrainian withdrawal from Avdiivka, leaving many of their wounded behind.

Avdiivka fell on the second day of the mid-February Munich Security Conference, where Western leaders and defence officials gathered to discuss the biggest geopolitical threats facing them.

The second reason for the panic is that the USA might walk away from the Ukraine war. Europeans remember how suddenly Washington cut and run from Afghanistan. Already its arming of Israel in the Gaza war has taken priority over Ukraine.

If Donald Trump wins the US presidency in November withdrawal from Ukraine seems likely. But it’s apparent too that there are growing doubts in the Biden administration. 

Biden has shifted from promising the U.S. would back Ukraine for “as long as it takes,” to saying the U.S. will provide support “as long as we can.” There is a growing belief that Biden wants to find a way to a truce or ceasefire with Moscow, one that would leave Ukraine partially divided.

One reason is that he’s already facing a backlash among Democrat supporters over his unconditional support for Israel’s gruesome war in Gaza. As the presidential election nears he does not want bad media coverage over Ukraine.

There is also speculation Biden will end US support for Kyiv and pass the buck to the Europeans.

On the ground in Ukraine

The Ukrainian army is already having to ration its artillery as shells promised by its allies do not arrive in sufficient numbers. They find themselves outgunned three-to-one on the battlefield.

Last year’s much-vaunted Spring offensive was a damp squib and Ukraine is not in a position to mount a serious offensive this year. It is firmly on the defensive and the Ukrainians are pleading for air defence systems, long-range missiles and artillery shells.

As one report states, “On an annual basis, Russia now makes three times more artillery shells than NATO can send to Ukraine, giving Moscow a major advantage in what many experts now describe as a war of attrition.”

In mid-February, The Financial Times noted, “Russia will churn out some 2 million artillery shells this year and has acquired a further 2 million from North Korea. It can deliver more than 100 tanks a month to the army, although many are refurbished. The Russian army will recruit another 400,000 men this year without resorting to full-scale mobilisation, Ukrainian officials forecast.”

Ukraine cannot match this:

According to estimates, Ukraine fired 7,000 artillery shells a day during the summer; now it uses 2,000. It should arguably be able to match the 10,000 that Russia is firing daily. In fact, Washington has been unable to provide additional munitions to Ukraine so far this year as cash to replenish stockpiles has run out. This meant that, for the first time, the United States on January 23 pledged nothing at the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, a forum of the war-torn country’s biggest military backers that has met 18 times over the last two years to provide Kyiv with arms.”

When this war began the West hoped to ruin Russia’s economy; that has not happened. Russia’s GDP grew by 3 per cent last year, faster than all the G7 economies, and the International Monetary Fund predicts that it will repeat that performance in 2024, revising its growth figures for 2024 up from 1.5 per cent to 2.6 per cent.

But the biggest problem facing Ukraine is the manpower shortage. The Associated Press ran this bleak assessment from Kyiv: 

“Without more soldiers, Ukraine’s defensive lines will be overstretched and more vulnerable to Russian attack, especially if Moscow launches intense multi-pronged assaults along the 1,000-kilometer front line.

The Ukrainian military has an average personnel shortage of 25% across brigades, according to lawmakers. Military commanders are unable to give their soldiers enough rest, and Russia has recently increased the tempo of attacks. As a result, soldiers are tired — and more easily injured — exacerbating the effects of the shortage.

Ukraine’s military command has said 450,000 to 500,000 additional recruits are needed for the next phase of the war. Even if Ukraine succeeds in mobilizing that number, which is unlikely, it still would not be able to match the manpower of Russia, which has more than three times Ukraine’s population.”

Europe responds

The first reaction of European leaders to the inability of Ukraine to win this war was to step up their belligerent rhetoric. On 10 January, Sweden’s Civil Defence Minister Carl-Oskar Bohlin claimed that “there could be war in Sweden.” He was echoed by the Swedish military commander-in-chief, Gen Micael Byden, who suggested that Swedes should mentally prepare for this to happen. 

On 15 January the UK’s Defence Secretary, Grant Shapps, said that a “pre-war inflection point” had been reached; and just two days after that, the Dutch Chair of NATO’s Military Committee, Admiral Robert Bauer, warned that the era of predictability was over and that NATO needed a “warfighting transformation” because an all-out war with Russia could occur at any point in the next twenty years.

Britain’s General Sir Patrick Sanders then chipped in saying that within the next three years the British Army needed to grow from its current 73,000 to 120,000 strong, with the addition of reserves. But even that was not enough, Sanders went on to say that the Army should be designed to expand rapidly, “to enable the first echelon, resource the second echelon, and train and equip the citizen army that must follow”.

He added that: “Ukraine brutally illustrates that regular armies start wars; citizen armies win them.”

The media generally treated this with disdain, as did Downing Street, but if Britain was to get dragged into a war with Russia, let alone China, conscription would not be far off – as was the case in both World Wars.

The claim by French President Emmanuel Macron that NATO has ruled nothing out when it comes to dispatching troops, and his suggestion that NATO troops might now have to be sent to Ukraine, was slapped down by Germany’s leaders. Chancellor Olaf Scholz, grasping that Russia would treat this as an act of war by NATO, responded by saying, “There will be no ground troops, no soldiers on Ukrainian soil who are sent there from European states or NATO states.” 

But the Russian TV station, RT, then published an intercept of a phone call between the head of Germany’s air force and three generals, one attending the Singapore airshow, which must be a spook’s delight. It outlined their wish for Scholz to approve deployment to Ukraine of Taurus (Cruise) missiles and to use them to hit targets inside Russia, including the Kerch bridge connecting Crimea to Russia.

Scholz quickly rejected that, realising Russia would retaliate, but there was a growing sense of disunity.

Europe and the US

President Biden is struggling to get $60 billion in US aid to Ukraine through the House of Representatives. But even if the vote goes Biden’s way its not clear what military equipment is available to buy. But the Europeans are the biggest donors to Ukraine, not the US.

Data from the Kiel Institute for the World Economy shows, by mid of January 2024, EU countries and EU institutions have already pledged €144.1 billion in aid, more than twice as much as the US, which pledged €67.7 billion. But the Europeans are not ready to take up the military burden in Ukraine if America pulls out, “Even the country doing the most to prepare militarily right now, Poland, is at least a decade away from having the kinds of capabilities that could repel a serious Russian attack.” Europe’s military production is still far too small to meet Ukraine’s needs. It has only met half of the one million shells it promised to deliver a year ago. 

One problem is the way European munitions are produced: “One of the main issues is that most European ammunition makers, unlike many of their U.S. counterparts, are privately owned. They are used to producing fewer, more sophisticated shells. In order to rejig, they want guarantees from the EU in the form of multiyear contracts and stable cash flow.”

But the bigger picture is outlined by Marcin Terlikowskide, Deputy Head of Research at the Polish Institute of International Affairs:

“The capacity of Europe to meet Ukrainian military needs is now exhausted. Beyond the absolute minimum, munition stocks are virtually empty and there are no capabilities in inventories of armed forces, which could be easily transferred to Ukraine and make a real difference.

Furthermore, General Valerii Zaluzhny, commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, has called for advanced systems like reconnaissance and target acquisition platforms or longer-range missiles, which are almost non-existent in Europe. Here, the United States could help but is unlikely to risk decreasing its operational readiness for the fear of further destabilization in the Middle East and Indo-Pacific.”

In short, European armies are not equipped to fight a great power war, that was supposed to be off agenda after the collapse of the USSR

Britain is typical of the situation. In February 2024 British MPs sitting on the Parliamentary Defence Committee were told that the UK’s ability to fight an all-out war would be undermined by the armed forces’ capability, stockpile shortages and a recruitment crisis. The Commons defence committee heard that the “the army would exhaust its capabilities “after the first couple of months” in a peer-on-peer war.

This picture would be repeated across European militaries. They are geared for the wrong sort of war. They believed supplying tanks to Ukraine would be a game changer but the Russians have taken out both German Leopard and British Challenger tanks. Leaving aside the danger of a nuclear confrontation if NATO countries become directly involved in a war with Russia, how might that play on the home front?

If European states were to step up military support for Ukraine it would fly in the face of the views of their own populations. Commissioned by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), a major survey of 12 EU countries, which was published at the close of February points to a marked shift in public opinion. Only 10 percent of those surveyed said they believe Ukraine can defeat Russia, while 20 percent predicted a Russian win.

That fits with evidence from Germany:“Only about 20 percent of Germans think their country should be doing more to support Ukraine militarily, according to recent polls. But the EFCR poll also asked what people thought should happen if the USA withdrew its support for Ukraine. A minority of Europeans (just 20 per cent on average, ranging from 7 per cent in Greece to 43 per cent in Sweden) would want Europe to increase its support for Ukraine.

European leaders will be aware that further involvement in Ukraine could prove too much for their citizens, particularly because while Europe pours billions in Kyiv the cost is austerity at home – particularly in Germany where Olaf Scholz is deeply unpopular. The obvious answer to all this would be to re-convene peace talks but the West is not ready to do that. It might be better, you would think, to do so now while Ukraine is still resisting than wait for a potential disaster.

Before you go

Counterfire is growing faster than ever before

We need to raise £20,000 as we are having to expand operations. We are moving to a bigger, better central office, upping our print run and distribution, buying a new printer, new computers and employing more staff.

Please give generously.

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.

Tagged under: