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What will more aid to Ukraine accomplish?

What will more aid to Ukraine accomplish?

There are limits to what Kyiv can do, even with an indefinite flow of Western assistance

Europe

There is little secret that proponents of total victory in Ukraine have trained their focus on ensuring that a $60 billion Ukraine military aid package, introduced by the Biden administration late last year, is passed by Congress. Its backers claim this aid is of vital, even existential importance, but what effects could this package actually have on the battlefronts in Ukraine and what is really at stake in the debate over Ukraine aid more broadly?

The funding, part of a larger $95 billion supplemental package for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, allocates $20 billion to replenish Department of Defense stockpiles after previous rounds of Ukraine aid, around $14 billion for Ukraine to purchase weapons from U.S. entities, $15 billion in support including intelligence services and military training, and $8 billion in direct budget support for the Ukrainian government. This sum, though prodigious in an absolute sense, pales in comparison to the $113 billion in Ukraine aid approved by Congress in 2022 during a time in the war when the balance of forces was much more favorable to the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) than it is now.

The AFU faces a cascade of critical challenges; prime among them are its growing shortage of troops and its dire munitions deficit in what, according to Ukrainian officials, has become an “artillery war.” The aid package strives to alleviate Ukraine’s mounting shell hunger, but money does not directly translate into readily-available munitions. It is not clear how many shells, and how quickly, the U.S. can send Ukraine even if the supplemental was approved today. Russia, according to estimates by RUSI from earlier this year, fires 10,000 artillery rounds per day. Consider, for a sense of scale, that European annual production by February 2023 totaled just 300,000 rounds — or roughly what Russia has spent every month in Ukraine. Russia — which is believed to have made around 2 million artillery shells in 2023 — outproduced its Western counterparts at a rate of seven to one, according to an Estonian intelligence assessment from last year.

Josep Borrell, Europe’s top diplomat, noted that Europe cannot shoulder the burden of supporting Ukraine on its own, but there are signs that Washington could struggle to backfill some of Ukraine’s core needs even with ample political will on both sides of the aisle. Indeed, there is no immediate fix for revamping the U.S. defense-industrial base to support the staggering scale of Ukrainian munitions expenditures. U.S. officials have announced plans for an incremental production ramp peaking at 100,000 shells per month, but this target will not be fully met until at least October 2025. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Ukraine needs 2.5 million shells this year — or roughly 208,000 per month — to sustain its war effort, suggesting a shell usage rate that the West simply cannot underwrite in the short to medium term even with the supplemental funding bill.

Kyiv’s severe materiel deficits are accompanied by equally serious manpower shortages, a problem that the West cannot alleviate short of direct military intervention in Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has struggled to craft a viable mobilization strategy amid spiking domestic divisions even as the number of foreign volunteers has declined from its peak of 20,000 in early 2022. These shortages are driven not only by Ukrainian casualties, which reportedly exceed the 31,000 total combat deaths claimed by Zelenskyy last month, but by depopulation trends so stark as to verge on demographic collapse. Kyiv must likewise grapple with the second-order effects of waging a prolonged and costly total war; a more expansive mobilization program would take even more people out of the labor force, further straining Ukraine’s limping wartime economy.

Moscow is not a static actor in this unfolding drama. The Russians keenly perceive Ukraine’s weaknesses and are racing to exploit them to the fullest extent, leveraging their vast manpower and firepower advantages to apply pressure all along the line of contact in Eastern-South Eastern Ukraine in the aftermath of Avdiivka’s fall.

In short, the Ukrainian war effort is on life support. Its collapse is, for the first time since the Russian invasion commenced in 2022, now a distinct possibility. What can the $60 billion aid package achieve in light of these grim realities? It will undoubtedly help Ukraine impose costs on and slow the pace of Russian advances. Though it will not forestall the continued threat of a collapse, it will likely give the AFU a lease on life through the coming months. But, as Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) accurately observed, it “is not going to fundamentally change the reality on the battlefield.”

Importantly, to acknowledge the limits of Western aid is not the same as suggesting that there is absolutely no value in continuing to support Ukraine. Indeed, a scenario in which the AFU collapses and Ukraine gets steamrolled by Russian forces would be dangerous for everyone involved and make it more difficult to reach a durable settlement. But it is equally true that any plan to support Ukraine must be coupled with a sober assessment of what can and cannot be achieved at this stage in the war.

Prospects of continued Western aid to Ukraine are an important, if not principal, source of leverage vis-a-vis Moscow in this war, but leverage tends to dissipate if left untapped. The problem is not aid as such but, rather, a continued insistence on maximalist war aims that are increasingly detached from this war’s realities.

Proposals to sustain Ukraine’s defense through 2024 in a bid to push Kyiv toward a new counteroffensive in 2025 are setting the AFU up for a re-enactment of the disastrous 2023 counteroffensive, if not worse. Plans involving NATO boots on the ground in Ukraine have wisely been ruled out by most Western leaders.

Advocates of maximalist war aims in Ukraine have been remarkably successful over the last two years in affecting their policies both on and off the battlefield. From HIMARS rocket launchers and SCALP cruise missiles to Patriot missile systems and Leopard 2A6 main battle tanks, Ukraine has been saturated with a vast and potent array of Western weaponry. The international sanctions regime on Russia is by far the largest in history and growing, with the EU now on its thirteenth package of restrictive measures while the U.S. Treasury Department constantly looks for opportunities to further tighten the screws on Moscow.

The $60 billion supplemental is the latest such measure, but the issue has never been a lack of action — it’s the absence of a viable endgame in Ukraine. Speaker Mike Johnson has called on the Biden administration to articulate “a clear strategy in Ukraine, a path to resolving the conflict.” Indeed, it is vitally important to re-center the Ukraine debate on achieving consensus around a realistic framework for war termination.

Handout photo shows US House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Republican from Louisiana, meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on December 12, 2023 in Washington, DC, USA. Zelensky met with US lawmakers Tuesday on Capitol Hill to advocate for more aid as discussions rema Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM via Reuters

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