This pivotal moment could also force a difficult decision for Western governments, which have so far offered support to Ukraine at an ever-increasing cost to their own economies and national arms stockpiles.
“I think you’re about to get to the point where either will be successful,” a senior NATO official said. “Either the Russians will reach Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, or the Ukrainians will stop them here. And if the Ukrainians are able to hold the line here, against this number of forces, it will count.”
Three potential outcomes
Western officials are keeping a close eye on three possible scenarios they believe could play out:
Then there is what officials see as the least likely possibility: Russia could redefine its war aims, announce victory and attempt to end the fighting. For now, this scenario appears to be little more than wishful thinking, sources say.
Western military aid, he said, “must come faster” if Ukraine’s allies are to thwart Russia’s territorial ambitions.
Western officials generally believe that Russia is in a more favorable position in the east, based purely on the masses. Still, “Russian progress is not a foregone conclusion,” a senior Biden administration official said.
As the front lines of the conflict have settled into a war of attrition built around back-and-forth artillery fire, both sides have suffered huge casualties and now face potential labor shortages. -work. Russia has also suffered losses of up to a third of its ground forces, and US intelligence officials have publicly stated that Russia will struggle to achieve serious gains without full mobilization, a politically dangerous move that Putin would never has so far not wanted to do. .
For now, the fighting is centered on two sister cities located on either side of the Seversky Donets River, Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk. Ukrainian fighters are almost completely surrounded in Sievierodonetsk.
Even though Western analysts believe Ukraine has a better chance of defending Lysychansk, which sits on high ground, there are already disturbing signs that Russia is trying to cut the city’s supply lines by advancing from the South-East.
“In many ways the fate of our Donbass is decided” around these two cities, Zelensky said last week.
A preference for Soviet systems
US officials insist Western weapons continue to flow to the front lines of the fight. But local reports of arms shortages – and frustrated pleas from frontline Ukrainian officials – have raised questions about the effectiveness of supply lines. Ukraine begged not only for heavy artillery, but also for even more basic supplies, like ammunition.
Part of the problem, sources say, is that while Ukraine lacks old Soviet ammunition suitable for existing systems, there have also been obstacles to transitioning its fighters to NATO-compliant Western systems. On the one hand, training soldiers on these systems takes time and takes the necessary fighters away from the battlefield.
In some cases, according to a source close to US intelligence, Ukraine simply chooses not to use unknown Western systems. For example, despite receiving hundreds of Switchblade drones, some units prefer to use commercial drones equipped with more user-friendly explosives.
Meanwhile, there is still a limited amount of Soviet-era munitions elsewhere in the world that can be sent to Ukraine. US urges countries with older stockpiles to figure out what they have to give Ukraine, but punitive artillery battle ‘wipes Soviet stuff off the face of the earth’ for Ukraine and allies who supply it, according to a US official.
Although the United States has a clear picture of Russian losses on the battlefield, it has struggled from the start to assess Ukraine’s combat strength. Officials have acknowledged that the United States does not have a clear idea of where Western weapons go or how effectively they are used once they cross the border into Ukraine – this that makes difficult intelligence predictions about battles and political decisions about how and when to resupply Ukraine. just as tricky.
The senior Biden administration official told CNN that the United States is trying to “better understand its [the Ukrainians’] consumption rate and operational tempo,” when asked specifically if Ukraine was short of ammunition and weapons. “It’s hard to know,” said this person. It is clear that Ukraine is making heavy use of the artillery that the United States and other Western countries have provided, because much of it is moving in and out of the country for repairs.
This blind spot is partly because Ukraine is not telling the West everything, Western officials say. And because the fighting is concentrated in such a small area relatively close to Russia, Western intelligence services do not have the same visibility as elsewhere.
“As you go down to the tactical level, especially where the majority of the fighting is, it’s farther from us, closer to Russia, and the forces are more densely packed together very, very close to each other,” said a senior NATO official. “So it’s hard to get a good granular picture of the state of the occasional fighting in the east.”
It is also difficult to predict how the Ukrainian military will fare at this pivotal moment because as casualties mount hastily trained civilian volunteers are being sent into battle, the NATO official added. Their performance under fire is an unknown quantity.
“It’s one thing to have people available, but the question is, are they ready for the fight? I think you’re going to see that as a factor,” the official said.
Predicting Putin’s next move
Meanwhile, US and Western officials see no signs that Putin’s commitment to continuing the costly war has waned.
“As for the strategic goals that we believe Putin has vis-a-vis Ukraine, I see no signs that they have changed,” the NATO official said. “Putin still believes he will eventually succeed and physically control or gain some form of political control over Ukraine in a significant part or ideally in its entirety.”
But even if Putin’s commitment remains ironclad, there is a growing realization that the West’s may not be.
As the fighting drags on, the cost to Western governments continues to mount. Some Western governments, including the United States, fear that the flow of arms given to Ukraine has depleted national stockpiles critical to their own defense.
“It’s a valid concern” for the United States, the senior administration official acknowledged.
Then, of course, there’s the sting of high energy prices and high inflation. As these costs begin to hit ordinary citizens, in the United States and Europe, and media attention begins to shift away from the daily grind of the fighting, some officials fear that Western support for Ukraine does not decrease.
The spokesman for Ukraine’s international army legion on Monday derided a ‘sense of complacency’ among Ukraine’s military bosses, saying the country needed a lot more support if it was to defeat the Russian invasion.
“There is a certain sense of complacency that seems to have descended on our Western partners that the arms deliveries that Ukraine has already received are somehow enough to win the war,” Damien Magrou said. , spokesperson for the International Legion in Defense of Ukraine. , during a press conference.
“They’re not! They’re not coming close to anything that would allow us to defeat the Russians on the battlefield.”