A Ukrainian soldier poses with full ammunition near an armored personnel carrier on the front line, which passes through the Ukrainian border city of Vovchansk, in Chuhuiv Raion, Kharkiv Oblast, which is bombarded daily by heavy artillery, on May 20, 2024. In recent days, Russian forces have gained ground in the Kharkiv region, an area that Ukraine had largely reclaimed in the months following Russia’s initial large-scale invasion in February 2022.

Kostiantyn Liberov/Libkos/Getty Images

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The West Is Still Playacting in Ukraine

The Biden administration’s recent approval for hitting targets inside Russia is still constrained by misguided fears of a Russian defeat

by
Vladislav Davidzon
June 07, 2024
A Ukrainian soldier poses with full ammunition near an armored personnel carrier on the front line, which passes through the Ukrainian border city of Vovchansk, in Chuhuiv Raion, Kharkiv Oblast, which is bombarded daily by heavy artillery, on May 20, 2024. In recent days, Russian forces have gained ground in the Kharkiv region, an area that Ukraine had largely reclaimed in the months following Russia's initial large-scale invasion in February 2022.

Kostiantyn Liberov/Libkos/Getty Images

The Biden administration has given the Ukrainian army permission to return fire against some targets inside mainland Russian territory using U.S.-supplied weapons, easing a long-standing ban. The limited change in policy came after what had become a sadly familiar ritual of Ukrainian pleading, Western public clamoring, prolonged prevarication, and a protracted process of public shaming. Washington’s partial turnabout came only after many months of frustration in Kyiv and among its European allies. But the direct cause of the shift were fears engendered by the Russian summer offensive, now in full swing. On May 10, the Russian army commenced a quick and concentrated combined arms offensive deep into the northern Kharkiv region of Ukraine, triggering concerns of a possible Ukrainian collapse on that front.

As with the previous instances of the U.S. providing tanks, advanced missiles, and F-16 fighter jets to the exhausted Ukrainians, the constraints were rooted in the Biden administration’s fear of escalation with the Kremlin. The hesitation has been widely viewed by the Ukrainians as hobbling Kyiv while prolonging the war and needlessly sacrificing the lives of Ukrainian servicemen. However, even with this latest apparent shift, Washington continues to perform its familiar fan dance. “The president recently directed his team to ensure that Ukraine is able to use U.S. weapons for counter-fire purposes in Kharkiv so Ukraine can hit back at Russian forces hitting them or preparing to hit them,” a U.S. official told Politico on May 30, making sure to add that the policy of not allowing long-range strikes inside Russia “has not changed.”

As another official told ABC News also on May 30, the partial American shift does not apply to the long-range MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) which the Ukrainians have been using to excellent effect against Russian targets in occupied Crimea. Rather, it applies only to the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS). Immediately, the Ukrainian forces took their first open cross-border shot using a U.S.-supplied HIMARS rocket to destroy a Russian air defense system in Belgorod, which serves as a Russian base of operations some 25 miles from the border north of Kharkiv. In effect, Russian troop concentrations and weapons systems stationed on the other side of the Ukrainian border are no longer safe from Ukrainian fire—for now. But the Ukrainian army continues to sound the alarm about a massive buildup of Russian troops on the border, and Kyiv is intensifying its calls for international assistance as the Russian army attempts to break through Ukrainian lines.

Last week, the Ukrainian government released a six-minute-long video in which President Volodymyr Zelensky delivered a plaintive speech calling for more assistance for the embattled city of Kharkiv. Attired in his signature olive green shirt, Zelensky stood in front of the ruins of recently bombed civilian infrastructure in the city. The camera pans over massive mounds of charred books inside the obliterated Kharkiv printing plant of the Vivat literary publishing house. With the destruction arrayed behind him, Zelensky, in slightly stilted English, demanded that world leaders act decisively against the Russian state.

The newest tranche of assistance will last the Ukrainians until the end of the year. That is, it’s enough to make sure the Ukrainian army won’t be overrun by the Russians before the U.S. elections.

Lack of air and counter-battery cover for the Ukrainians has meant that their defensive preparations were incomplete, as the Russians fired at Ukrainian soldiers constructing fortifications near the border. Barreling toward Ukraine’s second city in May, Russian forces punctured a hole through poorly protected gaps in the Ukrainian defensive lines. They rolled through the openings before Ukrainian reinforcements could arrive from other parts of the front. A Ukrainian Special Forces officer who had been operating in that sector admitted to me that Ukrainian defense fortifications in the sector were somewhat inadequate: “It is true that the minefields were not as deeply laid as they could have been,” he told me. The Ukrainian high command tacitly admitted the failure when they relieved the local field commander of his post.

The Russian incursion secured a 100-square-mile bridgehead along the Russian border and brought Russian troops several miles deeper into Ukraine. This was the first Russian success in taking Ukrainian territory in many months and the Russians managed to recapture a number of villages that the Ukrainians had retaken during the successful first counteroffensive in autumn of 2022.

The Russian advance may have been a preliminary probing assault in a campaign to take Kharkiv. Or it could have been part of a feint maneuver aimed at forcing the Ukrainians to reallocate troops from other sectors so as to create new opportunities for advancing along other sectors of the front. The Ukrainians successfully cauterized the damage and held off the advance and the Russians were unable to break through toward Kharkiv’s primary defense perimeter outside the city suburbs. Nor were they able to advance far enough to pin the city, or its suburbs, within range of artillery fire. They did however obliterate the neighboring Ukrainian town of Vovchansk in the process. It took only several days of artillery and aerial bombardment to pulverize the small city.

By June 2, some reports indicated that Ukrainian forces had advanced in central Vovchansk. For now, the situation around Kharkiv has been somewhat stabilized through the redeployment of scarce reserves of battle-hardened Ukrainian battalions. But it remains perilous all across Ukraine’s defensive lines in the region.

Over the last few months, the Russian military has perfected the use of so-called “glide bombs” against stationary Ukrainian targets. That class of munitions is deployed from Russian warplanes that fly far away from the Ukrainian border over Russian territory. These attacks have proved to be incredibly destructive against entrenched Ukrainian infantry and defensive positions. The Ukrainian forces have yet to figure out a way to intercept them effectively.

Moreover, still reeling from shortages of surface-to-air missiles, Ukrainian air defense crews have been intercepting ever-smaller numbers of projectiles from the Russian volleys targeting Ukrainian infrastructure. The national electrical grid has been degraded to the point that Kyiv is forced to ration power several hours a day in some neighborhoods.

That the Russian assault is proceeding as well as it has been is partially due to the extreme discrepancies in artillery fire ratios between the two armies while the latest tranche of U.S. aid was held up in Congress. Over a month ago, President Biden signed the long-stalled aid package to provide $95.3 billion in military assistance to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan. $61 billion of that assistance is now on its way to eastern Ukraine, though perhaps not quickly enough.

Republican Speaker of the House Mike Johnson finally brought the bill up for a vote in April, which allowed for its passage. Johnson had been a Ukraine skeptic, but over time transformed into a principled defender of aiding the Ukrainian cause—“the culmination of a remarkable personal and political arc for the Louisiana Republican,” as The New York Times put it.

Johnson spent weeks probing for ways to get the bill passed without losing the support of the isolationist, anti-aid votes on the right flank of his party. His change of heart can be attributed in part to the tacit political cover he received from former President Donald Trump in the lead-up to the House vote. While Trump put the onus of helping Ukraine on Europe, and did not endorse the aid package, he did say in April that Ukrainian survival and strength, which “should be more important to Europe than to us,” is “also important to us.” Trump’s carefully calibrated comment, and lack of criticism for the speaker, were enough for Johnson to proceed with the vote.

There was an additional factor that helped sway Johnson, namely appealing to the speaker’s deeply held Christian beliefs. American friends of Kyiv have long worked to communicate to a U.S. audience the plight of Ukrainian evangelicals and non-Orthodox Christians. In particular, exposition of Russian torture practices appear to have helped persuade the speaker.

Steven Moore, founder of the Ukraine Freedom Project, dubbed “the GOP’s man in Kyiv,” explained to me that “to get the word out on what was happening we even launched a site called RussiaTorturesChristians.org and paid for a slew of digital ads in order to build grassroots awareness of the issue. Especially in Louisiana. Speaker Johnson is a man of very deep faith and so while he was no doubt moved intellectually by the intelligence briefings that were offered to him, I am certain that our work and his many meetings with Ukrainian evangelicals moved him on an emotional and spiritual level.” Ukrainian political operatives agreed with this judgment. After the Senate vote, a senior member of the Ukrainian government quipped to me that she had been “very wrong to attend a Greek Orthodox church all these years,” and that she would have to think hard about converting to Baptist Protestantism.

The newest tranche of assistance will last the Ukrainians until the end of the year. That is, it’s enough to make sure the Ukrainian army won’t be overrun by the Russians before the U.S. elections. But the damage from the long holdup has arguably already been done. Even as the Ukrainians no longer need to husband resources and rush their dwindling stockpiles to front-line artillery units, the arrival of additional shells from the Americans had been hampered by logistical clogs that had temporarily slowed delivery.

Meanwhile, the lack of cohesion within the American political system has not gone unnoticed in Moscow, reinforcing the Kremlin’s calculation that it can win the war over the long term, through grinding attrition, which will only exacerbate Western fatigue. Paradoxically, the passage of the bill, and the pledges of restored assistance and munitions deliveries to Ukraine, also may have incentivized the Russian high command to attempt to lock in its gains and capture as much territory and inflict as much pain as possible before the U.S.-supplied munitions revitalized Kyiv’s capacity to resist.

A cynical observer might say that despite the White House triumphantly celebrating the passage of the bill, it is entirely unclear if there will be any change to its policy of “escalation management”—that is, providing the Ukrainians with just enough to stave off catastrophic defeat, but not enough to secure victory.

In recent pleas for additional assistance, Zelensky has publicly embraced this cynical outlook as he escalated his criticism of the West. On May 16, Zelensky stated for the first time that he believes that Ukraine’s partners “are afraid of Russia losing the war” and would like Kyiv “to win in such a way that Russia does not lose.” He went on to say that Ukraine’s allies “fear that Russian defeat would involve “unpredictable geopolitics” before asserting, “I don’t think it works that way. For Ukraine to win, we need to be given everything with which one can win.” In an interview a few days later, he complained that “all Western aid decisions for Ukraine have been late by at least around one year.”

Ukrainian soldiers defending Kharkiv have routinely complained to me that they are “fighting with their hands tied behind their backs” as a result of American constraints. Although the prohibition on Ukrainian counter-battery fire against Russian artillery inside Russia has, for now, been partially lifted, the assessment of these Ukrainian soldiers sadly remains true. Still, Ukrainian commanders are grasping at straws. Oleksander Syrskyi, commander of the Ukrainian armed forces, recently announced that France was ready to send French officers to train Ukrainian troops—a claim quickly walked back by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense.

But the rhetoric works well for President Macron, especially with the NATO summit in Washington, which will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the alliance, coming up in July. And to be sure, the French president standing alongside his American counterpart and embracing Zelensky to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day makes for stirring optics. But let’s be clear: There won’t be 300,000 NATO troops rushing to hold the eastern front. The reality is that, as Western leaders playact, Ukraine is running out of time.

Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Ukrainian American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.

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