What will it take for Ukraine to win its war against Russia? Western weapons and political will, experts say


This recently made for an extraordinary view of the shattered and battered streets of Kharkiv on a hot Saturday afternoon.

A Russian T-80 main battle tank, draped in camouflage netting and Ukrainian flags and pennants, was destroyed outside a neighborhood grocery store, where weary shoppers passed without a glance.

“Russian junk,” joked the tank commander.

He was happy to talk as long as we didn’t identify him or his unit.

A Russian T-80 main battle tank captured a month ago by the Ukrainians and used to drive Russian forces out of Kharkiv, the country’s second largest city. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

The tank, captured a month earlier by Ukrainian forces who had fiercely defended the country’s second largest city, had a clogged oil filter and the crew lay in the intermittent sun waiting for the local depot mechanic bail them out.

The bearded, jovial but haggard commander simply beamed through his ballistic sunglasses at how the tank’s 125 millimeter gun had been turned on the Russians and ultimately helped drive them out of town.

He killed many Russians, he says proudly.

What he wouldn’t give, the commander said, for an American-made Abrams M-1 tank or even a German-made Leopard 2 of the kind used by the Canadian army.

The Ukrainian commander of a captured Russian T-80, broken down around the corner in Kharkiv. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

In many ways, the scene was emblematic of the kind of war Ukrainians were forced into, where they had to beg, borrow or steal what they needed to survive.

A global contact group, intended to coordinate military equipment pledges from more than 40 allies inside and outside NATO, met for the second time on Monday at the US airbase in Ramstein , in Germany.

Throw caution to the wind

Despite a veneer of allied solidarity with Ukraine, there is an undercurrent of bitterness that sometimes comes to the surface. You heard it in Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s virtual address to NATO leaders in mid-March and again recently in Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba’s remarks during interviews with US media.

The big idea: Thousands of lives would have been saved if the United States and its Western allies had provided sophisticated military aid requested by Ukraine months before Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the full-scale invasion in February.

They’re not wrong, former US Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst said.

“It’s very simple,” he said. “Western aid, especially American aid, has been essential for Ukraine, but it has been slow. It has been cautious, too cautious. What if we had sent what we should have sent, when we would have had to send him, Ukraine’s position would have been stronger.”

Canada, one of the last Western countries to send lethal aid, cannot escape criticism in this regard. A request for arms and ammunition from kyiv was “considered” in Ottawa for months before Russian troops crossed the border.

“Canada has been surprisingly timid and late, as has the United States,” said Herbst, who served for 31 years as a foreign service officer with the US State Department and is now senior director of the Council’s Eurasia Center. of the Atlantic.

Given the large Ukrainian diaspora population in Canada and their prominent role as a military trainer in Ukraine, with all the insight that would bring, “you would expect more from Canada, but they don’t have been no better than the Biden administration, maybe even worse,” Herbst added.

In late January, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged non-lethal aid to Ukraine, he said Canada was not sending lethal weapons because it didn’t want to give Russia any excuse to invade. Ukraine.

Take stock

So, how mutilated has Ukraine been?

Reliable official figures are difficult to obtain and third-party estimates vary widely. In a rare moment of clarity, Zelensky hinted on Sunday that up to 100 Ukrainian soldiers were dying in Donbass every day. A few weeks ago, he told CNN that up to 3,000 soldiers had been killed defending the country.

It’s the material losses that concern Phillip Karber, chairman of the Potomac Foundation who has made 39 trips to Ukraine since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and is considered one of the foremost Western experts on the war of eight years.

He made his own calculations based on long-established military formulas and the kind of heavy fighting he’s witnessed over the past three months.

Since the February 24 Russian invasion, Karber estimates that just under half of Ukraine’s tanks have been destroyed or damaged; nearly two-thirds of Soviet-era armored personnel carriers were destroyed and up to a quarter of army artillery pieces.

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry has not confirmed to him or CBC News – for operational security reasons – how close Karber’s estimates might be.

It is in such a bleak context, however, that Ukraine’s demands for heavy weapons and equipment can be better understood and urgently appreciated.

Several Western military experts, who have quietly advised the Ukrainian government at various levels, have privately remarked on how officials reluctantly share information, other than providing lists of military equipment.

A destroyed and burned Russian troop carrier on the outskirts of Kharkiv. It was destroyed during fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces in late April. (CBC News/Murray Brewster)

More NATO than NATO

As the brutality, horror and atrocities of the Russian invasion revealed themselves, Western governments let go of their inhibitions and agreed to ship a variety of surplus heavy military equipment. They fill the pipeline, offer to fill in the gaps and create an army with a hodgepodge of equipment that, significantly, comes with a complex supply and spare parts chain as well as different, often specialized training needs.

“You know there’s this cornucopia of systems,” Karber said, “I’m laughing, half joking, but this is actually serious. Ukraine is going to have more different types of weapons of NATO, more standardized with other NATO countries than any other country in the world. NATO.”

Easiest for Ukrainians to integrate is Soviet-era equipment donated by other former Warsaw Pact countries, including Poland which provided T-72 tanks and early infantry fighting vehicles BMP. Ukrainian troops know how to drive and fight with them.

What will be more difficult is to integrate more high-tech Western equipment, whether French mobile artillery guns, Norwegian air defense missiles, Australian armored personnel carriers M-113 or Canadian and American M-777 towed howitzers. All have different supply needs and training packages that could take months to get up and running.

All of this will help Ukraine hold the line, stay in the fight and not lose the war.

Build a new army on the run

Not losing, however, is different from winning, and Karber said that to win, the Ukrainian military will have to mount a major theater-wide counteroffensive to reclaim territory.

To do this, he said, they are going to have to create a strategically totally separate army group, which could and should be equipped with more modern Western military vehicles.

The United States could, from its existing arsenal of recently retired equipment, equip the Ukrainians with hundreds of M-1 Abrams tanks, Bradley infantry fighting vehicles – enough to tip the scales on the battlefield in favor of the Ukrainians.

“Do the systems exist? And are available in significant numbers and not currently in active use in the United States, or in NATO countries, or in potential donor countries? And the answer is yes,” said Karber.

The other important key to turning the tide is air power. Karber said recently retired US F-16 fighters and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, with sufficient airframe life, could be made available and would be needed for any potential large-scale counteroffensive. .

It would take political will on the part of NATO allies to help Ukraine build such a force, Karber added.

Avoid a war of attrition

Without some sort of major counter-offensive, retired US Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges said the two countries would be reduced to trading blows.

“I believe Ukraine will eventually win, and I use that word on purpose,” Hodges said, noting that US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has recently spoken of “winning” the war. “You know, 20 years in Iraq and Afghanistan, I never heard any administration use the word win. It was always, you know, making things better, no safe haven for terrorists, but I mean, there there wasn’t, nobody was talking about winning.”

Russia, he said, chose a war of attrition in eastern Ukraine. Hodges said he did not believe Moscow had the capacity to launch a major offensive and could possibly become vulnerable by the end of the summer as the bite of international sanctions weighs on Russia’s defense industry .

“So I think Ukraine, if I advised them, that’s what they would do with a lot of this new equipment, new troops, training them, preparing them for employment, in a counter-offensive at the end of August, beginning of September,” Hodges said.

Both Hodges and Karber say it’s important that allies not be lulled into a false sense of security by recent advances by Ukrainian troops to draw Russian forces away from kyiv and Kharkiv.

While the Ukrainians stopped the invaders at the gates of both cities and gave them “really, really bloody noses”, as Karber put it, the fact is – in the end – that Russia chose to cede the territory rather than having its forces chewed up further.

Outside Kharkiv, in the past few days, there is still the distant rumble of artillery and see-saw battles for some villages the Ukrainians have reclaimed.

Sitting on his captured iron monster on a street corner in Kharkiv, the Ukrainian tank commander was seemingly indifferent.

“If they try to come back,” he said through an interpreter, “we’ll slit their throats.”

The Ukrainian commander of a captured Russian tank in Kharkiv. (CBC News/Murray Brewster)