This turning point could also force Western governments to make a difficult decision that has so far offered support for Ukraine at the expense of the steadily rising value of their own economies and national arms stockpiles.
“I think you’re about to get to the point where one side or the other succeeds,” a senior NATO official said. “Either the Russians will reach Slavyansk and Kramatorsk, or the Ukrainians will stop them here. And if the Ukrainians can hold the line here in the face of so many forces, it will make a difference.”
Three possible outcomes
Western officials are keeping a close eye on three possible scenarios they think could unfold:
In addition, there is what officials say is the least likely: Russia could reconsider its military objectives, declare victory and try to bring the fighting closer together. Sources say this scenario seems to be nothing more than wishful thinking at this point.
Western military assistance “must come sooner” if Ukraine’s allies are to thwart Russia’s territorial ambitions, he said.
Western officials generally believe that Russia is in a better position in the east, based solely on the masses. Still, “Russian progress is not a foregone conclusion,” said a senior Biden administration official.
As the front line of the conflict has turned into a war of attrition based on artillery fire, both sides have suffered massive casualties and are now facing potential manpower shortages. Russia has also suffered losses of up to a third of its ground forces, and US intelligence officials have publicly stated that Russia will fight for any serious gains without full mobilization, a politically dangerous move that Putin has so far been reluctant to take. .
At the moment, the fighting is concentrated around two sister cities on opposite banks of the Seversky Donets, Severodonetsk and Lysichansk. Ukrainian fighters are almost completely surrounded near Severodonetsk.
Although Western analysts believe that Ukraine has a better chance of defending Lysichansk, which is located on high ground, there are already worrying signs that Russia is trying to cut the city’s supply lines by advancing from the southeast.
“In many ways, the fate of our Donbass is being decided around these two cities,” Zelensky said last week.
Preference for Soviet systems
US officials insist Western weapons are still on the front lines. But local reports of a shortage of weapons – and frustrated pleas from Ukrainian officials on the front lines – raise questions about how effectively the supply lines are working. Ukraine asked not only for heavy artillery, but also for more basic supplies such as ammunition.
Part of the problem, sources say, is that while Ukraine is running out of old Soviet munitions that fit existing systems, there are also barriers to converting its fighters to Western NATO-compatible systems. First, training soldiers in these systems takes time and takes the right fighters off the battlefield.
In some cases, according to one source familiar with US intelligence, Ukraine simply chooses not to use unfamiliar Western systems. For example, despite receiving hundreds of Switchblade drones, some units prefer to use commercial drones equipped with explosives, which are more convenient to use.
Meanwhile, there is still a limited amount of Soviet-era munitions in the world that can be shipped to Ukraine. The US is urging countries with older stockpiles to find out what they have available to give Ukraine, but the punitive artillery battle “wipes Soviet weapons off the face of the earth” for Ukraine and the allies supplying them, according to a US official.
While the US has a clear picture of Russia’s combat losses, it has attempted to assess Ukraine’s combat strength from the outset. Officials have acknowledged that the US does not have a clear idea of where Western weapons are going or how effectively they are being used after they cross the border into Ukraine, making it difficult for intelligence to predict the fighting and political decisions about how and when to resupply. Ukraine. equally cunning.
A senior Biden administration official told CNN the US is trying to “better understand them [the Ukrainians’] consumption rate and operational pace”, when he was specifically asked if Ukraine is running out of ammunition and weapons. “It’s hard to say,” the man said. It is clear that Ukraine is actively using artillery provided by the United States and other Western countries, because most of it is moved into the country and taken out for repairs.
That blind spot is partly due to Ukraine not telling the West everything, Western officials say. And because the fighting is concentrated in such a small area relatively close to Russia, Western intelligence services don’t have the visibility they do elsewhere.
“When you go to the tactical level, especially in a place where most of the fighting is taking place, it is further away from us, closer to Russia, and the forces are more densely grouped very, very close to each other,” said a senior NATO official. “Therefore, it is difficult to get an accurate detailed picture of the state of intermittent fighting in the east.”
It is also difficult to predict how the Ukrainian armed forces will behave at this crucial moment, because as casualties rise, hastily trained civilian volunteers are sent into battle, the NATO official added. Their performance under fire is an unknown quantity.
“It’s one thing to have people, but the question is, are they ready to fight? I think you will consider this an important factor,” the official said.
Predicting Putin’s next move
Meanwhile, US and other Western officials see no signs that Putin’s commitment to waging a costly war is waning.
“As for the strategic goals that we think Putin has for Ukraine, I don’t see any signs that they have changed,” the NATO official said. “Putin still believes that he will eventually succeed and either physically control or take the form of political control over Ukraine, either in large part or, ideally, in all.”
But even if Putin’s commitment remains unwavering, there is growing awareness that the West may not exist.
As the fighting drags on, the cost to Western governments continues to rise. Some Western governments, including the United States, are concerned that the flow of weapons donated to Ukraine has depleted national stockpiles critical to their own defense.
“This is a serious problem” for the United States, a senior administration official acknowledged.
Then, of course, there is the sting of high energy prices and high inflation. As these costs begin to reverberate on ordinary US and European citizens, and as media attention begins to divert from the day-to-day fighting, some officials fear that Western support for Ukraine could wane.
A spokesman for the International Legion of the Ukrainian Armed Forces on Monday ridiculed a “sense of complacency” among Ukraine’s military backers, saying the country needs much more support if it wants to repel a Russian invasion.
“There seems to be a certain sense of complacency on our Western partners that the arms supplies that have already been provided to Ukraine are somehow enough to win the war,” said Damien Magru, spokesman for the International Legion of Defense of Ukraine. , during a press conference.
“This is not true! They don’t come close to anything that would enable us to defeat the Russians on the battlefield.”