Within the urgent push to arm Ukraine for a spring offensive

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Late last fall, as Pentagon officials patted themselves on the back after a string of US-backed Ukrainian battlefield victories, two abrupt changes occurred in the war with Russia. Moscow began launching waves of missiles and drone strikes against civilians and infrastructure across the country. And on the front lines, Russian troops radically stepped up their attack on the small eastern city of Bakhmut, while strengthening their defense lines in the south.

Those actions forced Ukraine’s Western partners to dramatically reassess the progress of the war and the direction it is likely to take next spring. As a result, in recent weeks the United States and its partners decided to enter a much more aggressive phase of support, agreeing to provide a level of aid they had long denied to Kiev.

The United States – along with France, Germany and the United Kingdom – is committed to the transfer of armored vehicles, its most advanced air defenses and large-scale troop training programs. These decisions reflect a new sense of urgency and a belief that if Ukraine’s armed forces are not equipped to make significant new gains in the coming months, they could face endless attrition or worse.

On the eve of the Friday meeting of the Ukrainian Defense Contact Group – a regular gathering of senior defense officials from Kiev Western financiers – in Ramstein, Germany, the United States announced a new withdrawal of up to $2.5 billion in weapons, including an additional 59 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles and 90 Stryker armored personnel carriers, along with hundreds of other vehicles and millions of artillery rounds, mortar – and small arms. The package follows $3 billion approved just two weeks ago and brought the U.S. total to nearly $27 billion in military aid over the past year.

The US is preparing another massive military package for Ukraine

“Now is the time,” British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said on a visit to Washington on Tuesday, following his government’s announcement that it would ship 14 Challenger 2 main battle tanks to Ukraine. “If we want to get this done, we need to do it quickly… right now… to give Ukraine the tools they need to get the job done.”

“There has to be something to break this deadlock,” said one of nearly a dozen officials The Washington Post spoke to in the United States and Europe, some of whom spoke on condition of anonymity about the accelerated policy process.

The government in Kiev fully agreed. “There is a growing awareness, almost a conviction now within the coalition of our allies, that you are an enemy [Russia] by negotiating with them or fearing escalation,” said Yuriy Sak, adviser to the Ukrainian defense ministry. “You stop them by beating them. The enemy is ruthless.”

At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, a longtime Army infantry commander, had asked months earlier “to look at the medium to long-term requirements for the Ukrainian armed forces, not just where the combat was in the summer and fall, where it could be in 2023 and 2024,” said a senior defense official.

“The idea that they need more air defense capability… and that they need armored vehicles was something we’ve been looking at for a while,” the official said. That process was underway, when the nature of the battle suddenly changed.

With the arrival of winter, Moscow’s attacks left entire Ukrainian cities without heating, water or electricity. While drones and missiles rain down apartment buildings, schools and hospitals, President Biden decided to send in a Patriot missile battery just days before Christmas to help fight the Russian airstrike against civilian targets.

“They’re obviously not just trying to turn off the lights all over Ukraine,” Colin Kahl, the Pentagon’s chief of policy, told reporters on Wednesday about the ongoing bombing. “They are also trying to exhaust the capability of the Ukrainian air defense to continue to protect Ukrainian airspace. … And as a result, we are committed … to ensuring that the Ukrainians remain viable.”

US officials warn that the Patriots — on which Ukrainian forces have just begun a shortened 90-day training in Oklahoma — will not arrive for some time, and that other systems will be needed for a “layered air defense” that can operate at different ranges. .

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But the Patriot decision, followed by similar air defense commitments from Germany and the Netherlands, was relatively easy compared to determining how to respond to Ukraine’s ever-growing public demand for heavy main battle tanks for offensive operations on the ground. the front lines.

The United States, in coordination with its “core” allies Britain and France, followed the battle around Bakhmut, a town in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, where fighting was going on. The fight became what military officials called a “meat grinder” for both sides, as Russian forces – largely made up of the Wagner group of mercenaries and released convicts – sharply escalated their assault on Ukrainian defenders.

In the south, Russian army troops had retreated across the Dnieper River from Kherson, the first city they had captured after the February invasion, in mid-November. But while the Ukrainians celebrated liberation, the Russians steadily fortified the other side of the river – and the road to occupied Crimea – with rows of trenches, tank traps and fresh troops.

“The impetus for the patriots… a lot of it was driven by current events,” the defense official said, as well as “the impetus for many more infantry fighting vehicles, tanks, whatever capability, to enable the Ukrainians to break the world war. me, trenchwarfare that is currently going on and enable them to strike back.

Austin’s goal, reflecting the long months of Pentagon study now becoming increasingly urgent, was to train entire battalions of Ukrainian troops in “combined arms maneuver” – combat tactics that use coordinated advances of armored vehicles, artillery and infantry.

The need for that kind of maneuver — emphasizing clever tactics and quality of weapons over quantity — led to what Kahl called the “shift” in approach. Although U.S. and European militaries had long trained Ukrainian soldiers in small groups to operate certain air defense systems and artillery, by December the Pentagon had become convinced that in order to prevent the Russians from advancing and to launch new offensive operations against Kiev necessary to learn how to maneuver in large, combined units.

The tactics were tailor-made for the vast, Kansas-like plains and farmland scattered across Donbas.

But the extensive combat training was of little use without the weapons — especially tanks and armored vehicles — that the Pentagon’s own study said were necessary for success on the battlefield. General Mark A. Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, heard the same thing from his Ukrainian counterpart, General Valery Zaluzhny. So did Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, to Andriy Yermak, the chief of staff to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

The plan for training and new armored vehicles moved into high gear.

“A lot of this process is essentially internal to the DOD,” the defense official said of the approval process, working with recommendations from the US European command on the ground in Germany. “We are having discussions with the inter-agency to make sure everyone is following,” including through National Security Council meetings with deputy and cabinet officials. “Sometimes it is adjusted in some way, the advice goes to the secretary of defense, the chairman comes in with his military advice, the secretary makes a decision” and it ends up on Biden’s desk.

Discussions within the government and with allies about sending tanks added momentum after Zelensky’s visit to Washington in December, said Jacek Siewiera, head of Poland’s National Security Bureau. “It’s absolutely clear that this was the catalyzing discussion.”

The question, unresolved in early planning, was where the heavy tanks would come from. The German Leopard 2 was used by a dozen other countries, most of them in Europe, and could be delivered quickly. But Chancellor Olaf Scholz resisted, saying Germany didn’t want to “go it alone” by sending main battle tanks before any other country – particularly the United States – did. Furthermore, concerned about disrupting Germany’s post-war reluctance to supply assault weapons, Scholz refused to allow other countries to transfer leopards in their own arsenal to Ukraine.

Austin was and remains – absolutely against supplying US-made Abrams M1s, the most powerful tanks in the world, to Ukraine. “It’s expensive,” Kahl said, noting that the tanks guzzle jet fuel and require serious training and maintenance.

Ukraine has barely managed to contain its irritation at that explanation. “For us, the main goal is to get western tanks,” said Defense Department adviser Sak. “We are talking about human lives here. I don’t think it’s a good strategy to analyze fuel consumption.”

After Allied talks, France said in early January it would send an undetermined number of AMX-10 RC light tanks. Germany agreed to send its Marder infantry fighting vehicles.

At the same time, Biden approved the provision of an initial installment of 50 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles to Ukraine. Austin will table the new weapons package announced Thursday when he meets with Ukraine’s military financiers in Ramstein on Friday.

Britain, whose announcement about Challenger 2 tanks came Saturday after a phone call between Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Zelensky, is so far the only country promising the main battle tanks Ukraine needs. But 14 of them are nowhere near enough to break through Moscow’s defenses.

“You can’t just snap your fingers when you’re delivering several battalions of mechanized equipment,” the US defense official said. “The Leopard is much more available and can be delivered on a much more relevant timeline.”

Attention has continued to turn to Germany, where Austin visited on Thursday in a last-ditch effort to convince Scholz. There was no public indication that progress had been made, but Poland and other countries indicated that they could go ahead and donate their tanks to Kiev – even without German consent.

“You have to put together a coalition of many different countries to get the numbers needed,” said Gustav Gressel, a defense expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, who estimated that about 200 tanks could be put together across Europe, with about 80 tanks. available by the beginning of summer.

Zaluzhny, Ukraine’s military chief, has said about 300 tanks are needed to get the battlefield going.

When asked if the United States would object if Poland and others decided to bypass German consent to send the leopards, the US defense official said: “It is important that allies and partners remain united. At the end of the day, the Poles and the Germans are going to solve it. It’s not our decision.’

Lamothe reported from Ramstein Air Base, Germany, and Morris reported from Berlin. Emily Rauhala in Brussels and Alex Horton in Washington contributed to this report.

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