‘Ukraine has no time to lose’: US rushes to prepare Kiev for spring offensive

As spring approaches, US officials are increasingly concerned about Ukraine’s dwindling supply of ammunition, air defenses and veteran soldiers. Moscow and Kiev continue to throw bodies in the battle for a city in the Southeast that the US does not deem strategically important. But the Pentagon says that regardless of Kiev’s battlefield strategy, the US wants Ukraine’s soldiers to have the weapons they need to keep fighting.

Russia has been bombarding the country with missiles for months, not only to cause destruction, but also to deplete Ukraine’s air defense supplies. Ukrainian soldiers have described an acute shortage of basic ammunition, including mortar shells and artillery shells. And more than 100,000 Ukrainian troops have died in the years of war, US officials estimate, including the most veteran soldiers.

Many of these losses take place in Bakhmut, where both sides suffer huge losses. Led by soldiers from the mercenary Wagner Group, Russia laid siege and rubble to the southeastern city for nine months. Ukrainian troops have refused to budge, while President Volodymyr Zelensky insists defense of Bakhmut is key to holding other eastern cities.

“The Russians clearly want to push to the borders of Donetsk all the way west, and to do that they need to get their hands on Bakhmut and the road network that runs along it,” said Dara Massicot, senior policy researcher at the RAND Institute.

But Austin recently told reporters that Bakhmut “is more of a symbolic value than a strategic and operational value.”

Instead, US officials are more focused on preparing Ukraine for a major spring offensive to retake territory, expected to begin in May. Hundreds of Western tanks and armored vehicles, including for the first time eight armored vehicles that can launch bridges and move troops across rivers, are en route to Ukraine for the offensive. The US and European partners are also pouring massive amounts of ammunition and 155mm shells, which Ukraine has identified as the most urgent need.

US aid packages “going back four or five months focused on what Ukraine needs for this counter-offensive,” said a US official, who was granted anonymity because of the government’s ground rules.

While U.S. officials are careful not to tell Kiev how the war should be conducted, Pentagon leaders said Wednesday that the equipment and training being provided will enable Ukraine to win the war — whenever and wherever it chooses to do so. to do.

“We are working hard to build up the Ukrainian army in terms of equipment, ammunition and training in different countries so that Ukraine can defend itself,” said Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley.

“Increased Ukrainian capability will enable the Ukrainian leadership to develop and implement a variety of options in the future to achieve their objectives and bring this war to a successful conclusion,” Milley said.

More than 600 Ukrainians completed a five-week training program in Germany in February that included basic skills such as marksmanship, along with medical training and instruction on combined arms maneuvers with US-made Bradley fighting vehicles and armored Stryker personnel carriers. Those troops are now back on the battlefield and a second batch of hundreds of additional soldiers are now going through the program.

Behind closed doors, U.S. officials have been pressuring Kiev to keep artillery shells and fire more accurately. This is a particular concern in Bakhmut, where both sides are spending ammunition at a rapid rate.

“Some in the Pentagon think they burn ammunition too fast,” said retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, former commander of US Army Forces Europe. “Excuse me, they are in a massive battle for the survival of their country against an enemy who has huge advantages in artillery ammunition and will not give up.”

Kiev has not yet defined a strategy, US officials said, but it essentially has two options: move south through Kherson into Crimea, or move east from its northern position and then south, cutting off the Russian land bridge . The first option is not realistic, officials said, as Russia has dug in its defenses on the east side of the Dnipro River and Ukraine lacks the manpower for a successful amphibious operation against such forces. The second is more likely, officials say.

In addition to sending weapons and training, senior U.S. generals this month hosted Ukrainian military officials in Wiesbaden, Germany, for a series of table exercises to help Kyiv break through the next phase of the war.

President Joe Biden ruled out sending F-16 fighter jets last month, and senior US officials have repeatedly said the planes are not in the cards right now. But officials are working on other ways to boost Ukraine’s air force, including efforts to mount advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles on Soviet-era MiG-29s and assess the skills of Ukrainian pilots.

Two Ukrainian pilots recently completed an assessment at an Air National Guard base in Tucson, Arizona, for U.S. military instructors to assess what training they need to better use the aircraft and capabilities the West has already provided, including bombs, missiles and escort kits. The program included simulator flights, but the pilots did not fly US aircraft, officials said.

An attempt to mount AMRAAMs on the MiGs, if successful, could also significantly increase the Ukrainian fighter pilots’ ability to disable Russian missiles, officials said.

With Ukraine running low on ammunition, Russia’s losses in men and equipment are becoming even more acute, forcing Moscow to turn to rogue states like Iran for additional weapons.

“Russia remains isolated, their military supplies are dwindling rapidly, the soldiers are demoralized, untrained unmotivated conscripts into convicts and their leadership is failing them,” Milley said.

Publicly, senior officials say it is up to Zelenskyy when and where to launch a new offensive, and whether to stay in Bakhmut or move his troops.

“President Zelensky is fighting this battle and he will make the calls about what is important and what is not,” Austin said. But he noted that: “We’re generating combat power, to an extent that we think it will give them opportunities to change the dynamics on the battlefield, at some point in the future, at whatever point that is.”

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