How US military aid package could thwart Russia’s summer offensive

Gunners from 43rd Separate Mechanized Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine fire at Russian position
Ukraine has lost valuable ground and lives in the wait for the delayed aid package - ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP

The relief after the US passed a £48.5 billion military aid package to Ukraine was palpable.

Commentators described it as Ukraine’s “1941 moment”, Ukrainian soldiers cheered and Volodymyr Zelensky praised the US for standing up to “Russian evil”.

But the aid package is dangerously late.

Ukraine has already lost lives and ground and while it might help blunt Russia’s anticipated summer offensive, it will not be enough to win the war on its own.

John Foreman, Britain’s former military attache in Moscow and Kyiv, said: “It buys Ukraine time until after the US election in November, maybe a year. It allows them to defend but the key problem hasn’t gone away. Ukraine is having to live hand to mouth on arms.”

The package doubles US military aid to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion in February 2022 and will crucially allow support and logistics mechanisms for the delivery of weapons to continue to operate.

The money will replenish equipment but hard-pressed Ukrainian commanders will have to look to address their most basic needs first.

Matthew Savill, the Royal United Services Institute’s military sciences director, said: “We would expect a priority to be artillery [ammunition and barrels] as well as air defence systems and missiles to replenish stocks depleted by recent Russian air strikes, particularly on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure.”

Jimmy Rushton, a British defence analyst based in Kyiv, agreed: “Missiles for air defence systems and artillery shells, in that order.”

The momentum of the war has swung firmly behind Russia in the half a year since Republicans in Congress first delayed the aid package.

Gunners from 43rd Separate Mechanized Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine fire at Russian position
Aid package will help Ukraine to defend its position against Russian attacks - ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP

Moscow has exploited the delay to exhaust Ukraine’s air defence arsenal and pounded critical energy infrastructure and major cities with near impunity.

At the front, Ukrainian military strategists have identified critical sections of the front line that urgently need bolstering, primarily with artillery rounds.

These include a central section of the eastern front line around the town of Chasiv Yar, which acts as a buffer for the Ukrainian “fortress cities” of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, and a northern section around Kupyansk, which defends the route to Kharkiv.

Kharkiv itself has come under intensified missile bombardment in recent weeks and could be the focus of a new Russian push.

The Russians can be expected to step up operations on all fronts in a bid to make progress before the new ammunition arrives.

The US-based Institute for the Study of War warned: “Ukrainian forces may suffer additional setbacks in the coming weeks while waiting for US security assistance that will allow Ukraine to stabilise the front.”

Stabilising the front is the most that can be hoped for. No one is under the illusion that this aid will not be enough for Ukraine to resume an offensive.

Mick Ryan, a former Australian general, said: “For now, the aim will be to get the aid bills back to the Senate and then signed by President Biden in the coming days. Then the hard work of rapid delivery of aid, and the stepping up of US military-industrial production, begins.”

The Ukrainian military aid package was passed on Saturday after a six-month delay in the House of Representatives by Republicans who wanted it linked to tighter controls against immigrants on the US-Mexico border.

It must be approved by the US Senate, which is controlled by Democrats and likely to pass it, before Joe Biden signs it into law and aid can start being distributed.

The US is Ukraine’s biggest weapons supplier and its kit is seen as vital to the war effort because it is more specialised than equipment from European allies.

Analysts, and front-line Ukrainian soldiers, say that US cluster bombs, banned by many countries that signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions, are critical for dealing with massed Russian tanks and infantry assaults and are more effective than conventional 155mm artillery.

Rockets for long-range, precision-guided Himars artillery systems are essential for targeted strikes on Russian command and supply centres.

While other allies, including Germany, have recently promised to provide more Patriot air defence systems, the US is the only producer of interceptor missiles they fire.

Spare parts for Bradley fighting vehicles and barrels for M777 howitzers also have to come from America.

As well as promising more military aid, the US confirmed it would increase the number of military advisers posted to its embassy in Kyiv, prompting jeers from the Kremlin, which said that the US risked tripping into a military quagmire.

Maria Zakharova, a spokesman for the Russian foreign ministry, said: “Washington’s deeper and deeper immersion in the hybrid war against Russia will turn into a loud and humiliating fiasco for the United States such as Vietnam and Afghanistan.”

Franz-Stefan Gady, an associate fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that the aid gave Ukraine breathing space for trying to solve the even bigger problem of replenishing its battered army with more soldiers.

“The new aid package also gives Europe some temporary breathing space to ramp up air/artillery ammo production and launchers,” he said. “We should see a noticeable increase in European industrial output in late autumn or winter.”

That points to the deepest vulnerability in Ukraine’s war effort.

A steel worker manufactures 155 mm M795 artillery projectiles at the Scranton Army Ammunition Plant in Scranton
New aid package will give Europe 'some temporary breathing space' to ramp up artillery production - MATT ROURKE/AP

The war is still likely to run for years but the political tensions in Washington that delayed this aid package have not gone away. If Donald Trump wins the presidency in November, and does not change his stance on the war, it could be the last.

If other allies – principally Britain, Germany, and the European Union – fail to fill the gap in the next six months, this moment may simply postpone defeat.

But if they can, and if the influence of the America First wing of the Republican party peaks, this could prove a turning point.

Michael Clarke, a professor of war studies at King’s College London, told the BBC on Sunday: “This is the 1941 moment. There was nothing but defeat through 1940, 1941. The balance shifted for the Allies during 1941 but the effect wasn’t felt until the autumn of 1942, the battle of Alamein. The Ukrainians have got to stay in the war until the tide turns.”