Ukraine Still Wants More Help to Win the War

Kyiv pleads for advanced gear as the Donbas fighting drags on, but advocates fear there’s “not enough political will.”

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Ukrainian soldiers ride on a moving truck-mounted multiple rocket launcher
Ukrainian soldiers ride on a moving truck-mounted multiple rocket launcher
Ukrainian soldiers ride on a moving truck-mounted multiple rocket launcher near Lysychansk, eastern Ukraine, on May 13. Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images

Ukrainian lawmakers and anti-corruption activists are concerned that the United States remains too worried about possible military escalation with Russia to send fighter aircraft and heavy weapons to Kyiv that they say are needed to win the fight in the Donbas.

A group of Ukrainian members of parliament and advocates who came to Washington this week led by Oleksandra Ustinova, a Ukrainian lawmaker, is pushing members of Congress and the Biden administration to provide Ukraine with American-made F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, multiple rocket launch systems, and advanced air defenses. The visit came as U.S. lawmakers are expected to forge ahead with a $40 billion aid package for the war-torn country shortly. Republican Sen. Rand Paul objected Thursday to a vote on the aid, which has already passed the House, delaying the package until next week.

As the battle for Ukraine’s Donbas region has intensified, with scores of American-provided howitzer artillery units reaching the front lines, U.S. and Western officials have continued to insist that Ukraine has made progress in pushing back Russian troops. Ukraine has used artillery to shell Russian units and prevent them from massing across the Donets River, a senior U.S. defense official told reporters on Friday.

Ukrainian lawmakers and anti-corruption activists are concerned that the United States remains too worried about possible military escalation with Russia to send fighter aircraft and heavy weapons to Kyiv that they say are needed to win the fight in the Donbas.

A group of Ukrainian members of parliament and advocates who came to Washington this week led by Oleksandra Ustinova, a Ukrainian lawmaker, is pushing members of Congress and the Biden administration to provide Ukraine with American-made F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, multiple rocket launch systems, and advanced air defenses. The visit came as U.S. lawmakers are expected to forge ahead with a $40 billion aid package for the war-torn country shortly. Republican Sen. Rand Paul objected Thursday to a vote on the aid, which has already passed the House, delaying the package until next week.

As the battle for Ukraine’s Donbas region has intensified, with scores of American-provided howitzer artillery units reaching the front lines, U.S. and Western officials have continued to insist that Ukraine has made progress in pushing back Russian troops. Ukraine has used artillery to shell Russian units and prevent them from massing across the Donets River, a senior U.S. defense official told reporters on Friday.

But the Ukrainian lawmakers and activists are presenting a darker picture of the conflict in the Donbas that has seen Russia and Ukraine going back and forth in fighting over small towns and villages. The region’s flatter terrain is increasing the urgency for NATO-standard weapons, from armed drones to sophisticated Abrams tanks, to push Russia out of the country, as Ukraine is losing larger numbers of troops in the toe-to-toe fighting.

“Everyone thinks because it’s not on TV 24/7 that it’s kind of getting better, that the war is not there,” said Ustinova, the Ukrainian lawmaker. “Unfortunately, we keep losing many more men now than at the beginning of the war. It’s much worse on the battlefield now.”

She hinted that Western media is not picking up the severity of the combat in the Donbas because outlets are reluctant to send reporters into the fray. “You are not going to send them to the front line now, because it is hell there,” she said. The senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity under attribution rules set down by the Pentagon, said that Russia had 105 battalion tactical groups inside of Ukraine as of Friday, with the ground forces entirely focused on the Donbas and in the south.

Among the top Ukrainian requests for the new $40 billion aid package, of which the Pentagon initially earmarked half for military assistance for Ukraine and NATO’s eastern flank nations, also include self-propelled Paladin artillery systems and precision weapons that could help Ukraine clear occupied cities of Russian troops without inflicting civilian casualties. The senior U.S. defense official said on Friday that there was no specific timeline in the West for transitioning Ukraine to NATO gear.

The Pentagon said it is still working closely with Ukraine on weapons requests. “We continue to consult closely with the Government of Ukraine on their defense needs,” said Lt. Col. Anton Semelroth, a Defense Department spokesperson. “The Department of Defense will continue to consider providing Ukraine with key capabilities on an as-needed basis.”

The Ukrainian delegation was insistent that the country needs to upgrade as quickly as possible to NATO-level equipment to defeat Russia, which has a numerical advantage on the battlefield in Donbas. Ukraine is also unable to supply Slovakian-provided S-300 air defense units with enough ammunition, because there is limited production of rounds for the system, and many of the Soviet-era T-72 tanks provided to Ukraine by Poland and the Czech Republic are still in need of maintenance to begin functioning. Ustinova said that the shift to the flatter Donbas has limited the need for more Soviet-era MiG fighter jets, and instead, the country would like surplus U.S. F-15s and F-16s that can perform ground attack missions—but that could take two to three months to train Ukrainian pilots on.

But the Ukrainian delegation expressed frustration that the United States still acted fearful of escalation with Russia and had not clearly defined what victory looked like. If howitzers had arrived in Ukraine earlier, the delegation said, it might have prevented the besieged city of Mariupol from being encircled by Russian forces.

“There’s still [the question] of what is escalatory and what is not,” said Daria Kaleniuk, the co-founder and executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center, who has become an informal advocate for more Western arms provisions to Ukraine during the war. “And we’re saying, ‘Listen, guys, how do you define and differentiate what is escalatory and what is not?’ We’re not asking for your troops, we’re asking for modern, advanced weapons, enough to win the war.”

“There is not enough political will to make Ukraine win,” Kaleniuk said.

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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