Ukraine is in a race against time to save the eastern region of Donbass as relentless Russian artillery and airstrikes threaten to turn the tide of the war, and support for continued defiance of Kyiv among some Russian allies. Western Europe seems to be collapsing.
Ukrainian officials have said they urgently need US-made Advanced Mobile Rocket Launcher Systems (MLRS) to halt Russian advances in Luhansk and Donetsk. The rockets would be capable of hitting Russian firing positions, military bases, airstrips and supply lines from a distance of up to 300 km (185 miles).
“We have a great need for weapons that will allow us to engage the enemy over a long distance,” said Ukraine’s Commander-in-Chief, General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi. “The price of delay is measured by the lives of the people who protected the world from [Russian] fascism.”
Ongoing disagreements in Washington have delayed MLRS deliveries. Some of President Joe Biden’s national security advisers are reportedly concerned that Ukraine could use the rockets to strike targets inside Russia, a development that could trigger an escalation in the United States and NATO. Kyiv has already launched attacks on Russian soil.
Moscow, well aware of the game-changing potential of rocket systems, has already expressed strong objections. “If the Americans do this, they will clearly cross a red line,” said Olga Skabeeva, an influential Russian state television host whose views mirror those of the Kremlin. Russia’s response could be “very harsh”, she warned.
US media reported on Saturday that Biden had agreed to supply some rocket systems as part of a major new US weapons package for Ukraine to be announced this week. The package may also include another advanced weapon, the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, known as Himars.
The decision reportedly followed talks between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. “Heavy weapons are at the top of our agenda, and more are coming,” Kuleba said after the talks.
But doubts remain about which weapons systems will be supplied and when the US decision will be made. The White House and the Pentagon have yet to confirm the information.
“I will not preempt decisions that have not yet been made,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said. Despite the delay, he insisted it was “not too late” to send new weapons to Ukraine.
If the US defies Russia’s warnings and pushes ahead this week, the UK is expected to simultaneously announce that it will also supply advanced long-range rocket systems. The British version of the MLRS, which can fire 12 missiles in less than a minute, has a more limited range of 84 km (52 miles). Earlier this month, Britain announced an additional £1.3 billion in military support.
Speaking in Prague on Friday, Foreign Minister Liz Truss said it was “completely legitimate” for NATO and EU countries to provide more weapons, including tanks and planes to Ukraine despite Russia’s objections. Like Boris Johnson, Truss says Russian leader Vladimir Putin must be seen as losing the war. Britain has demanded a return to Ukraine’s pre-2014 borders.
The UK’s hardline stance is not shared by major European countries rattled by Russia’s advances, which are increasingly focused on paper peace talks. Henry Kissinger, the veteran US diplomat, fueled this debate last week in Davos by suggesting that Kyiv should be prepared to make concessions, amounting to a possible de facto partition.
Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz had an 80-minute phone conversation with Putin, during which they urged the Russian president to conduct “serious direct negotiations” with Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The French president and the German chancellor called for “an immediate ceasefire and a withdrawal of Russian troops”.
Keir Giles, of the London-based Chatham House think tank, said a quick end to the conflict appeared to be the priority for France and Germany.
“There are already worrying indications that the most unstable of Western European partners may be discussing among themselves how to force surrender on Ukraine in the form of territorial concessions in order to end the fighting…C is more important to them [France and Germany] ending the fighting than getting to a viable outcome,” Giles said.
The apparent change has angered eastern European governments like Poland, whose president has accused Germany of failing to deliver on its promise to supply heavy weapons. After Italy presented a peace plan last week, which the Kremlin called a ‘fantasy’, Latvian foreign minister Edgars Rinkevics warned that Putin cannot be trusted under any circumstances to stick to a rule.
“Any deal with Russia is not worth a broken penny,” said Ukrainian presidential adviser and peace talks negotiator Mykhailo Podolyak. “Is it possible to negotiate with a country that always cynically lies? … Russia has proven itself to be a barbaric country that threatens global security. A barbarian can only be stopped by force.
The pressure to talk peace or make concessions is fueling concerns in Ukraine that it is in a race against time to turn around its fortunes on the battlefield. Kyiv’s government said on Saturday that its forces may have to withdraw from Luhansk to avoid encirclement.
The Russian Defense Ministry said the town of Lyman in eastern Ukraine had fallen under the full control of Russian and Russian-backed forces in the region. Meanwhile, a group of independent international legal experts have accused Russia of committing genocide.
Despite recent setbacks in Ukraine, Peter Ricketts, a former British national security adviser, said the West must not back down now.
“Having supported Ukraine and encouraged it to resist Russian aggression in the first phase, we now have a real obligation to see it through in the long term,” he said. “It would be disastrous to reduce Western support after they’ve done their hardest to confront the Russians. You have to work hard for the long term. Military support may decrease over time and likely economic support will become more important as the fighting subsides.