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Interview: Can Western Weapons Help Ukraine Stop Russia's Donbas Offensive?

Ukrainian servicemen ride atop an armored fighting vehicle at an unknown location in eastern Ukraine. The image was released on April 19.
Ukrainian servicemen ride atop an armored fighting vehicle at an unknown location in eastern Ukraine. The image was released on April 19.

As Russian forces launch an all-out assault in eastern Ukraine, the West is scrambling to supply Kyiv with more advanced and heavier weapons.

Ukraine has defied the odds on the battlefield and Russian forces have retreated from northern Ukraine. But experts say the extent of Western military assistance is likely to define the next, and potentially defining, phase of the war.

The United States recently approved an additional $800 million assistance package to Ukraine. Other nations -- from Slovakia to the Baltic countries to Canada -- have also begun to send heavier and longer-range weapons, including howitzers, anti-aircraft systems, anti-ship missiles, armed drones, armored trucks, personnel carriers, and tanks.

The new level of assistance highlights how quickly Western backing has evolved over the course of the nearly two-month-old war. As Russian troops invaded Ukraine on February 24, Western governments expected a short war and supplied Kyiv with light weapons and equipment, including rifles, helmets, communications gear, and shoulder-fired missiles.

But Ukraine’s battlefield success so far has changed that calculus, with Western officials now looking to arm Ukraine not only for a crucial fight in the eastern region of Donbas that will rely more on tanks and artillery, but also for a long and grinding war against the Russian military.

To find out more, RFE/RL spoke with Garvan Walshe, a former security adviser to Britain’s Conservative Party and the CEO of the consultancy group Article7.

RFE/RL: As the new phase of the war begins in eastern Ukraine, there is also a logistical fight under way. We are seeing Western countries send more equipment to the Ukrainian military as it prepares for battles that are likely to rely more on tanks and artillery. How would you assess the level of Western assistance to Ukraine so far and is Kyiv getting what it needs?

Garvan Walshe: Ukraine is not getting as much as it should. It may be getting enough that it needs because the Ukrainian Army has been using equipment incredibly effectively. They have very high morale, they have well-trained troops, [and] they're able to also capture a lot of Russian equipment and put it back into service. But really, Western support has been too slow. It has not been of the scale that's required.

It's as if they spent lots of time thinking that Ukraine wouldn't be able to hold out so they didn't send anything, and finally, they've got around to sending [heavy weaponry] only after overcoming their belief that the Russians wouldn't see it as provocative.

[The West] miscalculated Russian tactics and Russian motivation, and Russia is quite clearly aiming for a war of conquest. We can see that from the massacres in [the northern town of] Bucha and elsewhere. [The West] really needs to give Ukraine everything [available], so that they can fight this extremely aggressive military operation and can push Russians back from territory they've occupied.

RFE/RL: What are some of the things that the West could begin supplying to Ukraine relatively quickly?

Walshe: Well, the kinds of [weapons] the Americans announced a few days ago are the right kinds of things, they're just not [on] the right kind of scale.

New artillery is very useful. People can be trained up on that fast. They can [also] be given very advanced artillery rounds that the West has and that the Russians don't. That can massively multiply the artillery’s capability. [Ukraine] could have counterfire radar, so they can detect where the Russians are firing artillery from and can destroy [it] quickly. But they just need more of it.

There's going to be a very intense fight and [Ukraine] is going to need an awful lot of ammunition. They're going to need a lot of ammunition for Soviet-era artillery, as well as Western style artillery, where the shells are slightly different sizes. (NOTE: Since this interview Washington has pledged a further $800 million in military aid for Ukraine, including additional heavy weaponry.)

Western military equipment is loaded on to a plane for delivery to Ukraine.
Western military equipment is loaded on to a plane for delivery to Ukraine.

RFE/RL: As this war shows no signs of slowing down, it seems inevitable that Ukraine will need to begin to use new equipment supplied from NATO countries as its stockpiles of Soviet and Russian-built equipment are exhausted. How difficult is it to train a military with new equipment?

Walshe: It's pretty manageable when it comes to ground equipment, [but] it's very difficult when it comes to air assets. Fighter pilots will take a long time to train properly on even [U.S.-made] F-16 or F-15 [jets]. [Ukraine] also needs significant logistical support. They use different types of fuel, different types of spare parts, so all that sort of stuff needs to be put in place. And if that's going to be put in place over the next few months, we need to start thinking about how to do that now.

And it's not just about supplying the end-use equipment [that can be used in battle]. It's also about making sure that equipment can be sustained in the field, that it can be repaired, and that the operators and the mechanics are trained to maintain it.

RFE/RL: When it comes to the logistical side of this, does the West have the capability and capacity to get Ukraine what it needs in time? And what about getting the equipment into Ukraine and to the front?

Walshe: The capacity is there, but it needs to be put into the field. People need to be trained, new fuel depots need to be created, and new supply chains made, and we can do all that. It just takes a bit of time and [the West] needs to have a change of mindset and understand that this is going to be a long war and the West and Ukraine can win because they have a vastly superior economic capability and a vastly superior industrial might [compared to] Russia.

In the long run, the fight favors Ukraine. But [the West] needs to be able to support them so that they can get to the long run. Then we need to be able to help their armed forces transition to equipment that can [be] supplied in large quantities over the long term and that they can use over the long term.

Moscow-backed separatist fighters fire a volley of Grad rockets at Ukrainian forces in the Donetsk region on April 11.
Moscow-backed separatist fighters fire a volley of Grad rockets at Ukrainian forces in the Donetsk region on April 11.

Ukraine also has a very strong domestic defense industry. So, some of that effort is going to be helping their domestic defense industry adapt to Western standards [and] to NATO equipment so they can play a full part and actually become over the long term a very prominent supplier of weapons to the West.

RFE/RL: It seems that we are still seeing reluctance from some Western countries, notably Germany, to supply Ukraine with the heavy weaponry that analysts and officials say it needs. We’re seeing an evolving conversation there, but do you see any changes coming out of Berlin in this regard?

Walshe: There's a fierce internal battle going on within the German government between the foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, and the energy minister, Robert Habeck, who are from the Green Party [and] have a much tougher line on this, and the chancellor, Olaf Scholz, who's with the Social Democratic Party (SDP).

Their last chancellor was Gerhard Schroder, who is still serving on the board of Rosneft, the Russian energy company, [and] still hasn't [resigned]. You've also got other people [from the SDP] like Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the president, who wasn't received in Ukraine [recently] because he’s taken too pro-Russian of a line in the past. So that’s the party Scholz is leading. I think he is trying to change it, but he's fighting very stiff headwinds.

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The Greens are pushing for much more aggressive action. This has been the policy for a long time, both on energy sanctions and also on military supplies. So, there's room for hope in Germany, but they need to keep fighting and turn this supertanker around. It's going to take some time.

Furthermore, the Germans themselves don't actually have that much military equipment. They have had this emergency 100-billion-euro fund to replenish their armed forces [announced after Russia’s invasion], [but] the stocks of ammunition are extremely low. Their tanks don't have spare parts [and] they don't have very many of them.

The best thing the Germans could do now is cut off oil supplies and Baerbock announced that they would start to do that by the end of this year. [But] that's really too slow. Germany doesn’t depend significantly on Russian oil, but a lot of the money that Russia earns is from oil sales rather than gas sales because oil is much more expensive. It would be feasible to cut off oil supplies and move towards cutting down gas supplies, but that's obviously more difficult.

The other thing [Germany] could do is just supply money to Ukraine so it can buy other weapons from countries who actually have them and can supply them.

Germany can also speed up its arms export approvals process. It has a very well-equipped defense industry that's capable of churning out a lot of equipment, but the process for approving [the] sales of [that] equipment, particularly to war zones, is incredibly long and difficult and they should really slash through that bureaucracy. Right now, that German bureaucracy is helping Russia.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.

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