January 20, 2023
The West is at risk of failing Ukraine.
It seems strange to write this amid all the hoopla about unprecedented levels of military aid that the collective West has committed to Ukraine, but it’s a case of a too little, too late. Or, hopefully, not too late, but late enough to make ZSU’s task a lot harder than it had to be.
Situation on the Front
We start, as we often do, with an operational update. The last two months of the war were characterized by a stabilization of the front lines, periodic massive Russian missile attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure — with attendant destruction of civilian buildings — and a relentless assault on Bakhmut, all while both sides prepared large reserves of men and materiel that they kept away from the action. The direct attacks on Bakhmut failed to break the defenses there, and eventually the Russians decided to encircle the city. To this end, they withdrew their best units from Bakhmut (pushing in mobiki to replace them) and sent them, with reinforcements, north and south of the city. In the north, after savage battles lasting for over a week, the Russians captured the key town of Soledar, famous for its salt mines where the Soviets had stored ammunition once upon a time. By all accounts, the fight was bloody, with massive casualties on both sides, probably in the thousands (as reported by German intelligence). Despite claims by Wagner’s chief Prigozhin, the Russians did not capture 500 ZSU fighters there as the Ukrainians managed to withdraw before they got encircled in the center of the town. To the south, the Russians have also managed to advance, capturing the key town of Klishchiivka. Bakhmut is now partially encircled although the main supply road remains open. The situation there is serious enough that an American official claimed that the US government is advising Ukraine to abandon Bakhmut in order to trade space for time like they did with Lysychansk. Ukrainian sources acknowledge that the situation is dire but that they are not yet ready to give up the town. Bakhmut has acquired a special significance for both sides that seems to exceed its current strategic value. Taking this heavily fortified key town, however, would be a significant tactical victory for VSRF, and it could become a strategic one if the situation around Siversk in the north deteriorates. As things stand right now, as long as ZSU control Siversk, any Russian attempt to strike west toward Sloviansk/Kramatorsk from Bakhmut will be in danger of an attack on an exposed flank. Which means, the Russians would have to attack north as well. The ultimate goal of the Russians here would be to come out to the administrative borders of Donetsk Oblast, which would require taking the Sloviansk/Kramatorsk agglomeration, a no easy task. From there, it is possible to strike west toward the Dnipro and, ultimately, Kyiv.
Further north, ZSU have been attempting to break through the Svatove-Kreminna defense line that the Russians built up after they fell back from Kharkiv and bought time with delaying action along the Oskil River. They were unable to do so before the winter made offensive operations difficult. ZSU managed to cut the road between the two towns a couple of times, but the Russians — with fresh reinforcements — succeeded in pushing them back. This sector of the front is important for liberating Luhansk as it will allow ZSU to encircle Lysychansk from the north. The problem is that the Russians have built yet another defensive line to protect the key transport hub of Starobilsk. More importantly, perhaps, advances here would bring ZSU closer to being able to strike Luhansk itself, where the Russians have established very large depots that supply their operation in the region.
To the south of Bakhmut, VSRF have been trying to push the Ukrainians away from Donetsk, and have scored some small, but costly, gains. The problem for them here was illustrated by the fiasco at Makiivka, where several hundred mobiki were destroyed in HIMARS strikes on New Years night, not to mention periodic attacks on the city of Donetsk itself.
The rest of the front was relatively quiet until today, where the Russians launched an offensive on a wide sector of the LOC in Zaporizhzhia Oblast, especially north of Tokmak.
This is an interesting part of the front. On the one hand, it has been very, very quiet except for the occasional flareup at Vuhledar (where the Russians attempted some unsuccessful attacks). The Russians are also exceptionally busy constructing defenses around Melitopol because it is believed that this is one of the more promising lines of attack for ZSU. The Ukrainians have been gathering forces near Zaporizhzhia for a long time, and the Russian channels are always buzzing with the possibility that any day now, ZSU might go on the offensive there. The reason is easy to see: if the Ukrainians break through the Russian defenses here and manage to get to the Sea of Azov, they will split the southern Russian forces in two. The western half will then be doomed as its only supply road will be through the Crimea Bridge, which of course, will then immediately come under attack and is unlikely to survive it. After that, the Russian will be in an untenable position in Crimea. And if Crimea falls, Putin’s regime would be hurt like no other loss in Ukraine can possibly hurt it — I would not attempt to predict the consequences. This scenario might be so tempting to ZSU that it could pay to pretend to plan to execute it now if for no other reason, then to tie significant Russian resources in the area.
The sudden activities of the Russians just north of their main defenses might be an attempt to disrupt what they see as a coming ZSU offensive, try to advance toward the regional capital, and push ZSU away from the problem areas. It could also be yet another attempt to compel ZSU to engage its reserves — the General Staff has steadfastly refused to really reinforce their positions at Bakhmut/Soledar despite Russia’s advances, and it could well be that the Russians are trying so hard because one of their goals is to get the Ukrainians to start using the reserves, which would enable the Russians to hit elsewhere with better chances of success. (More on this below when we discuss the conditions under which the sides have been generally able to secure victories over the past year.) So it could all be a giant distracting strike.
Or it could be one of the main axis of attack of whatever Gerasimov has planned for the big Russian offensive. We know one is coming — the Russians have stockpiled too much not to use it, and they have to make some gains if they should have any hope of success — but we do not know where. It is very likely to be along several sectors, with perhaps diversionary strikes from Belarus as well. Sources in the US administration say that the Pentagon has asked the Ukrainians to delay their own offensive until all new military hardware arrives and is ready for use, but ZSU has a very good reason to wait a bit as well: committing too soon in the wrong place might prove very dangerous, as the Russians found out when they expected an attack in the South but got hit at Kharkiv instead. On the other hand, the Ukrainians cannot cede the initiative to the Russians, so they cannot wait indefinitely. In fact, they might have to attack somewhere to disrupt the Russian plans. It’s a cat-and-mouse game right now that causes a lot of people on Twitter and Telegram to have daily meltdowns because of the uncertainty. We just have to wait and see.
The Problem of German Tanks
It’s easier to say that we must wait and see than to do it. Every day brings news of some fresh atrocity and deaths in the hundreds on each side. And every day we must wonder to whose advantage this delay might be.
As I have indicated repeatedly, the Western response to the Russian invasion exceeded my expectations. The problem is, my expectations had been fairly low. I have been repeatedly disappointed by the niggardly pace of supplies (which had actually declined since the summer of 2022), and quite angered by the fact that the aid is reactive in nature. I understand why we did not immediately rush everything in early spring, but once it became clear that Ukraine will not fall so easily, the West should have opened the floodgates. Instead, it temporized and sent stuff that, while doubtless useful (Javelins), was not nearly as useful as other things (artillery).
Now, after the Russians failed with the Blitzkrieg, they reverted to form, which is to say they went back to their massive reliance on artillery, and they pounded their way through every place where they managed to commit enough howitzers to reduce to rubble. The Russians were firing an absolutely staggering 30,000 artillery rounds per day for months on end. In some more intensive operations, they would fire up to 60,000 rounds. That’s per day. Nothing can really withstand such withering fire for very long, and the Russians managed to take even well-defended places like Severodonetsk this way. (For comparison, ZSU has averaged about 3,000 rounds per day.) The reaction to this was to sent HIMARS that would allow ZSU to hit at depos and command centers, disrupting Russia’s ability to mass artillery like that. Specialists had been saying that these systems were needed from day 1, but they did not arrive until the summer. The effect on the battlefield was soon evident, and by the end of the summer the Russians were no longer able to make any advances, and were forced to withdraw from Kharkiv and then Kherson.
The Russians then made a deal with Iran for drones, and launched the series of attacks on the energy infrastructure of Ukraine. This was predictable — US intelligence had warned about the deal months before the drones showed up. Did the West use the lead time provided by the intelligence to shore up Ukraine’s anti-missile and air defenses? Nope. Only when the waves of drones and missiles destroyed more than half of the infrastructure did we belatedly scramble to give the Ukrainians some means of defending themselves. And still nothing really that can counter ballistic missiles. Only now are we sending some Patriot systems (I think 3 have been pledged in total) but they won’t be operational for weeks.
We have had ample time to prepare for the inevitable Russian winter/spring offensive. (I call this the “Gerasimov Offensive” because in addition to being the Chief of Staff, the General was also appointed to command VSRF’s operations in Ukraine, replacing Surovikin — and to me this is an indicator that something big is in the planning.) This offensive has always been inevitable from the moment Putin announced the annexations and the mobilization, as I noted at the time. Since Ukraine cannot liberate its territories by defending, a ZSU offensive is inevitable as well.
The meeting at Ramstein (the 8th so far) was supposed to announce the firm commitment of the West to Ukrainian victory, and make that statement credible by sending everything that Ukraine would need for such a victory. The meeting was not supposed to be revolutionary in the sense that it would represent some huge departure from previous trajectories, but — at least to me — it was going to be the perfect opportunity to shift from “help Ukraine not lose” to “help Ukraine win”. In many respects, it delivered, as the following (partial) list of aid shows:
- USA: 100 Bradley IFVs, 100 Stryker APCs, 100 M113 APCs, 36 105mm artillery, 18 M109 SPG, 4000 Zuni air missiles, GLSDB rockets, among many other things
- Denmark: 19 Caesar SPGs (all the country has)
- France: 20 Bastions, unknown number of AMX-10 RC ARV
- UK: 15 Challenger 2 tanks (first Western tanks!), 30 AS90 SPG, 600 Brimstone missiles, 200 APC/IFV
- Germany: 40 Mader IFV, 1 Patriot battery
- Sweden: S60 anti-aircraft guns, 50 CV-90 IFV, 12 Archer SPG (their largest aid package to date)
- Canada: 200 Senator APC, 1 NASAMS battery
- Baltic States: anti-aircraft guns, helicopters, Stingers, dozens 155mm FH70, 122mm D30, anti-tank weapons
- Poland: S-60 anti-aircraft guns, 155mm KRAB, a company of Leopard 2 tanks (pending German approval)
- Slovakia: 16 152mm Dana-M2 SPG
- Netherlands: 1 Patriot battery, 90 T-72 tanks
- Italy: 1 SAMP/T air defense system (they said main aid package to take until February to coordinate)
In addition, the Western partners are providing Ukraine with tens of thousands rounds of ammunition, training, and all sorts of other weapons and supplies. Finland also announced their largest aid package to date for Ukraine. The factories in Czechia, Slovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria are working around the clock to produce equipment and ammunition, and to repair equipment sent by the Ukrainians.
Notably missing from this list are the German Leopard 2 tanks. Aside from the Polish pledge — which requires German approval to effect — no such tanks appear headed to Ukraine anytime soon. Germany’s Chancellor Scholz came under intense pressure to agree but would not budge. Thus far, Germany is unwilling to either provide some of its own tanks or to allow any of its customers to re-export German tanks to Ukraine. There are two obvious reasons for this reluctance, none of which are particularly complimentary to the German government:
- Germany would not be the first to provide any substantial weapon but might be willing to do so after the Americans do it. This has been the pattern since the beginning and Scholz does not want to change it. The British government might have hoped to push him by sending the Challengers but it did not work. If the US sends Abrams tanks, then maybe Germany would relent. But our own government dropped the ball on this too since they did not prepare for the possibility: sending Abrams tanks to Ukraine would require the establishment of a logistical chain of support, which is totally doable, but takes time. We should have started this months ago, but of course, everybody was looking at the obvious solution — there are 2,000 Leopards in Europe with all the support you need right there — without accounting for the peculiarities of the German government.
- A plurality of Germans do not support sending Leopards to Ukraine. This is a failure of the German government because they have not explained to the public why this would be necessary. Instead, the neo-Nazis from AfD and the useful idiots from Die Linke have been joining hands with Russian agents and online trolls to poison the narrative and create this impression that somehow such a move would be “escalatory” or “aggressive” or some other such nonsense. That Scholz is just hiding behind this, however, should be clear: the same polls show a plurality in favor other countries sending their Leopards to Ukraine, and yet Scholz would not permit that either, at least for now. There are encouraging signs in that respect, however, because apparently the Germans are allowing others to train Ukrainians on Leopards. This seems like a rather extravagant way to fool your own partners and waste ZSU’s time if you do not intend to permit re-export of these tanks in the end. So I am cautiously optimistic that while Germany might not want to send any of its own tanks, it might permit others to do it. Poland and Finland have already indicated readiness to do so, but I am sure that once the ball gets rolling others will join. There are 13 countries that have these tanks, and sending just 15-20 each would give Ukraine a sizeable armored fist.
Politically, this decision is putting Germany’s European leadership in question. Scholz has not really led in anything since the war began. Germany is actually a major donor to Ukraine but since it’s always late and with reluctance, the image it has created is one of an unwilling and rather unreliable partner. The nearly compulsive need to hide behind the Americans makes mockery of any claim to leadership in Europe as well.
And it’s all the more puzzling because, in the end, Western tanks simply have to go to Ukraine. It’s inevitable. Ukraine must liberate its territories, which means offensive operations against fortified positions. It means tanks, and this war has already chewed through quite a lot of the arsenal left by the Soviets. While Russia still has depots to open and tanks to restore (as well as new ones to produce safely out of reach of Ukrainian missiles), the Ukrainians are entirely dependent on foreign help. Eventually, they will have to produce most of what they need, but doing this in the middle of a war and in conditions where it is still unable to protect itself from Russian aerial attacks is just not possible. So if the Western partners are really committed to Ukraine winning/not losing, then they will have to supply the tanks.
It’s not all about the tanks, however. This has been, first and foremost, an artillery war.
The Situation with Artillery Rounds
As I mentioned above, the Russians have been able to advance whenever they were able to concentrate massive artillery fire to flatten any defensive lines the Ukrainians could construct. It’s brutal and inefficient but it works. The question is, can they continue to do this?
Answering this question requires data that we do not have: how many shells did the Russians have in storage, and how many can they produce/refurbish per year? Estonian intelligence estimated that Russia started the war with about 17 million rounds of all types, and that in 2022 it produced/restored anywhere between 1.7 and 3 million. It has expended about 10 million by the end of the year (an average of about 32,000 rounds per day). It is unclear how many of the remaining shells in storage are serviceable — presumably they got and used the ones that were more easily made so — and it’s unclear how much more they can expand capacity to produce new ones in the short/medium term. The estimate is that at some point in 2022 (spring or summer), VSRF would be “limited” to about 9,000 per day.
There are some indications that the Russians are having difficulties maintaining the crazy rate of ammo depletion. The intensity of use has dropped about 75%, and there are videos of Russian soldiers bitterly complaining about not having enough artillery ammo. Some of this is the result of effective use of HIMARS and the destruction of massive quantities of stockpiled materiel by ZSU. Some of this is the result of VSRF stockpiling ammo for their offensive and so limiting what it delivers to the front right now. Then there’s the evidence that the Russians have gone to North Korea to buy ammo. DPRK has quite a lot of it because its military doctrine — like the South Korean one — is very artillery-centered. They also have large production facilities, and apparently there was a large new order placed there in late fall. US intel also says there’s some deal and showed photos of trains going to Russia (cars are covered, so no clue what’s actually inside).
Thus, it is not easy to say just what the Russian sustained capability might be — I take the Estonian estimate as reasonable (I have seen more optimistic ones, but I like to be conservative about these things). The Russians will never run out of ammunition, and they can probably sustain that 9,000 rounds per day more or less indefinitely. Again, this “reduced” rate is three times the Ukrainian average over the first year of the war.
Since VSRF will have quite a lot of artillery for the foreseeable future, the question becomes what Ukraine has to balance this and perhaps offset enough of that advantage to make further Russian gains unlikely. More to the point, what can the Western partners do to help/sustain ZSU in this? Here we run into a bit of a problem: NATO military doctrine is not artillery-centric, and as a result our existing stockpiles are not nearly as extensive as the Russian ones. Moreover, while Ukraine is using a lot of 152mm rounds (which is the standard the Russians use), NATO uses 155mm rounds, and the pieces we are sending require that type of ammunition. Factories in Slovakia, Czechia, Romania, and Bulgaria produce 152mm shells in large quantities, but the future for ZSU is clearly with the NATO standard, so let’s look at that.
The US used to produce fewer than 100,000 rounds per year, but now the Pentagon has placed orders that aim to make 40,000 per month (starting with 240,000 in 2023, and doubling that capacity by 2025). People look at this number and despair: even at their “reduced” rate, the Russians are expected to use 270,000 rounds per month. But, several caveats are in order. A significant percentage of the Western production are precision rounds — which means that one needs far fewer of them to be just as effective (although they are more expensive to make), which compensates for some of the number difference. The Russian number includes all types of rounds, not just the main 152mm (their 155mm equivalent), so the difference is even smaller given the large supplies of different caliber rounds to Ukraine (it was recently revealed that Bulgaria had secretly provided nearly half of the ammo ZSU used in the first several months of the war, for example). Third, and most importantly, these are just the US numbers.
Europe, in fact, is expected to out-produce the US. There are several production facilities that make 155mm shells there, and the main CSG (Czech/Slovak collaboration) surged its capacity by 100% already to produce 100,000 per year on its own — they say that can move to 150,000 per year). Overall, Europe is expected to make over 300,000 rounds this year, and there is significant slack in Scandinavia and Spain (e.g., Expal apparently can double its production). It does take time, but the Europeans can be substantial contributors here.
We are at more than half a million 155mm rounds per year already (and perhaps double that within a couple of years), and we have not even touched the largest segment of this market, which is Asia-Pacific. The two key players to watch there are Australia and South Korea. (Japan makes lots and is expanding, but is not exporting.) Australia built two new very large and very modern factories in the last years (one with Rheinmetall and another with Thales), and one of them can make more than 100,000 rounds per year. The Koreans have God-knows how many of these shells in storage: they have at least 4,100 155mm artillery pieces, and given their doctrine, they would need millions of shells to sustain even 90 days of operations. ROK is not sending shells directly to Ukraine but has provided 100,000 rounds to the US to replenish our own stockpile. This scheme also works: we can send our own shells to Ukraine and fill our stores with Korean ones. Then there is also Pakistan, which recently sent many tons of ammunition to Ukraine as well.
In other words, in 2023 the West can provide Ukraine with up to 1 million rounds of 155mm shells alone if there is the political will to do so. And that capacity will only increase with time now that all militaries have seen what modern combat might actually look like — we will all be stockpiling artillery rounds like crazy too.
This does not include the 152mm rounds (of which there are lots in Eastern Europe, and more are being made), 122mm rounds (already months worth of those being supplied), 120mm mortar rounds, and even 105mm rounds (very widespread). While the sub-152mm artillery is not nearly as important because of its limited range and destructive power, it can be quite useful in fights at close quarters, like capturing towns, for instance.
One thing I should probably mention is that the numbers of 155mm rounds do not include the millions of cluster munitions we have in storage. They are supposed to be destroyed or converted, but the effort to do so has slowed down to a crawl, so currently they are just sitting there. Ukraine requested them, but Biden declined to provide them. The Russians use a lot of cluster munition but Western armies have not done so for the past 20 years or so because of the significant risks to civilians. If Ukraine pledges not to use them on cities, however, it might be worth considering fulfilling their request. This will drastically increase the number of rounds they can use, and cluster munitions are very, very effective.
Bottom line: Russia must rely on its own production and perhaps some limited help to keep its artillery firing, and most of that production will be unguided rounds. The West can supply Ukraine with more than enough artillery rounds to deny Russia the artillery advantage it needs to make gains. It will require coordination and sustained effort, but since most NATO countries will be interested in expanding their capacity, the investments will be made. It remains to be seen how they will choose to balance between building up the national stockpiles and sending shells to Ukraine.
So what does this all mean?
The War is Reaching a Decisive Phase
My expectation is that the outcome of the current war will be decided over the next several months. Not that the war will end then — I do not think it will end this year — but that we will know the contours of what the settlement is going to be.
If the Gerasimov Offensive fails, the Russians will be unable to mount any offensive operations to take new territories for a long time, maybe a year or more. The operation is going to be extremely costly in terms of ammunition and equipment (not to mention personnel, but they are not constrained in that), and will almost certainly deplete a lot of what remains of the Soviet-era stocks. Rebuilding these will take a lot of time even with an economy that is militarized to do it.
In this case, everything will depend on how far ZSU manage to advance before the Russians can stop them. Ukraine will incur significant casualties trying to liberate heavily fortified territory even if its defended by hundreds of thousands of badly trained and ill equipped mobiki. Ukraine’s mobilization potential is not that great, so it might hit a limit there. It is possible that they reach pre-invasion LOC (in fact, I think they can), and it’s even possible they endanger Crimea. But it’s also possible that they run out of offensive steam before that.
The war will then likely fizzle out with some sort of formal or informal ceasefire or continue at much lower levels of intensity while both sides gear up for the next round. The hope here would be that internal changes in Russia bring a different government to power, and that such a government can negotiate a peace that might be more enduring.
If ZSU shatter the Russian army (this will require the tanks, and probably airplanes), then the internal processes in Russia might be accelerated. As I have said before, I do not believe that this war can end with Putin in power. So it either continues in one form or another until he dies or he gets removed (or steps down).
If the Gerasimov Offensive succeeds, then Ukraine will be in real trouble. The Russians would conquer more territory (with all the attendant horrors they will perpetrate there), Putin’s regime will be invigorated, and Ukrainian morale might waver. The voices in the West that claim that the war is “unwinnable” will be get re-energized, and the calls for “negotiated peace” at Ukrainian expense will get louder. Western unity will be sorely tested.
As I have repeated so often, Ukraine can only win this war with unwavering Western support. It is a lot easier to generate it when one is winning, and a lot harder to sustain in darker times. I do not think the West will abandon Ukraine — I see no scenario where Russia conquers most of the country — but it could be that this turns into a quagmire with about a third of Ukraine beyond Kyiv’s reach. Eventually, I do believe that the Russians will be forced to abandon most (or all) of their conquests in Ukraine, but this might be a long time.
Therefore, it’s best to shorten the war and the suffering by arming Ukraine now with everything it needs to win. The next months will be critical, which is why these German-induced delays about the tanks are so infuriating.
Release the Leopards, Scholz!