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Ukraine digs defenses, fears it could lose Russia war with U.S. aid delays

kyiv, Ukraine — Forced to retreat, Ukraine is now struggling to prevent the war’s front lines from collapsing, as Russian attacks and U.S. delays leave kyiv and its allies facing the possibility of a painful defeat.

A $61 billion aid package has been blocked in Congress for months, leaving Ukraine exposed on the front lines – short on ammunition and men – while its energy system now faces an attack that threatens bare its exhausted air defenses.

Shortages forced Kiev’s army to withdraw from a key eastern city in February, and with no progress in Washington, Ukrainian soldiers are now desperately trying to hold their positions along some 600 miles of the line head on.

“Nothing has changed: we didn’t have shells then, we don’t have them now,” said artillery sergeant Andriy, who was part of kyiv’s retreat from Avdiivka in February after months of intense fighting. “The Russians continue to advance in groups, without stopping,” Andriy, who did not want his last name revealed because he was not authorized to speak publicly, told NBC News last week.

Ukrainian leaders, backed by Western officials, are pushing Republicans to break the deadlock before it is too late, fearing that the Kremlin will seek to take advantage by launching a new offensive this summer or before .

Russia has targeted key energy infrastructure with attacks like Thursday’s attack on the Trypilska thermal power plant near kyiv.Ukrainian Emergency Service via / AP

“They understand that we are in a very weak position right now,” said Oleksandra Ustinova, a member of Ukraine’s parliament who chairs the country’s wartime aid monitoring commission. “The Americans understand this too. They understand that we literally have nothing to shoot with,” she said in a phone interview this week. On Wednesday, this message was echoed by the top American general in Europe.

Russia currently fires five artillery shells for every one fired by Ukrainian forces, and that disparity could increase in coming weeks to 10 to 1, said Gen. Christopher Cavoli, commander of European Command.

He told Congress that Ukraine would run out of artillery shells and air defense interceptors “in fairly short order” without new U.S. support, leaving it vulnerable to partial or total defeat.

Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines in areas like the eastern Donetsk region say they have not been able to match Russia’s firepower.Alex Babenko / AP

A crisis on the battlefield is increasingly becoming an air crisis.

Russia has shifted its attention to Ukraine’s energy grid, hitting key installations in missile and drone attacks that exploited the lack of air defense systems across the country.

But particular attention was Kharkov, causing repeated power outages and raising the possibility that Ukraine’s second-largest city could soon become the Kremlin’s main target.

The city, which had a population of 1.5 million before the war, is just 42 kilometers from the Russian border, and President Vladimir Putin hinted last month at his desire to create a “sanitary zone” around the wider Kharkiv region to stop Ukrainian attacks. reaching the border regions of Russia.

The Ukrainians are seeking additional forms of air defense “of all kinds as soon as humanly possible,” a senior U.S. State Department official said. kyiv has made it “very clear that the Russians are now taking a much more aggressive posture towards Kharkiv,” the official said.

Norwegian Defense Chief General Eirik Kristoffersen said in an interview this week that air defense was essential not only to protect Kharkiv from missile attacks, but also to prevent a ground attack on the crucial city. “In the current situation, I don’t think the Russians can achieve this, but I worry if Ukraine runs out of air defense systems, which would change the dynamic,” he said.

Zelensky recently visited the construction site of a defense line in the Kharkiv region, as Russia threatens Ukraine’s second-largest city.DOCUMENT / AFP – Getty Images

The possibility of a new Russian offensive on Kharkiv is a major concern for a Ukrainian sergeant whose battalion is stationed in the region. “We won’t let them get it,” said the optimistic sergeant, who goes by the call sign “Marine.” and did not want his name published because he was not authorized to speak publicly. But the challenge was obvious: Their ammunition levels are so low, the sergeant said, that for every shot his troops fire, the Russians respond with 10. Ukrainian commanders don’t let them fire until the Russian forces storm their positions, which is often too late, Marine said.

But as fears of an attack on Kharkiv in the north mount, the Russians are waging an active offensive near the town of Chasiv Yar, a front-line town in the eastern Donetsk region, just 30 miles (48 km) to the north. from Avdiivka.

Last week, Russian state media reported that Russian forces had entered the suburb of Chasiv Yar and on Monday the Russian Defense Ministry said its paratroopers had stormed a Ukrainian stronghold on the outskirts of the city. Ukraine admitted last weekend that things were “difficult” there.

“Russia is already trying to move forward,” said Mykola Bielieskov, a researcher at Ukraine’s National Institute of Strategic Studies, a government research group. “They are trying to take advantage of the fact that Ukraine suffers from a serious shortage of artillery and air defense. »

To retain them, Ukraine is digging deep in several ways.

Three defense lines are being built, even where there are no hostilities, Zelenskyy said last weekend while visiting new fortifications in the northern Chernihiv region, bordering Belarus. In some areas of the front, fortifications are almost complete, he said, and include installations shaped like “dragon’s teeth” and ditches to stop tanks. Zelensky said he is not hiding it because he wants Moscow to know “there will be resistance.”

We are a long way from a year ago, when the Russian army was building trenches to try to repel a Ukrainian counter-offensive which had finally run out of steam.

But retrenching is probably the best thing the Ukrainians can do right now, said Bryden Spurling, a defense and security expert at RAND Europe. “What worries me is that if there was a breach, it could lead to a pretty significant collapse if the Russians were able to exploit it,” Spurling said. “What you would like the Ukrainians to be able to do is add reserves to close that gap. But it is difficult to know to what extent Ukraine actually has this capability.”

Fortifications were built around front-line towns like Chasiv Yar, hoping to prevent Russia from gaining further.ROMAN PILIPEY / AFP – Getty Images
Ukrainian troops are exhausted by the lack of supplies and reserves that would allow them to withdraw from combat.ROMAN PILIPEY / AFP – Getty Images

Ukraine is struggling to recruit more troops to bolster its ranks depleted by two years of war. The country’s parliament adopted a new mobilization law on Thursday after months of revisions by a government wary of negative public reactions. Ukraine will still need to find new conscripts from somewhere if it wants to continue its defensive struggle on the battlefield, and Zelensky’s government already decided to lower the age of eligibility for men earlier this month.

“Ukraine will lose the war”

Ukraine’s urgency, however, has not been matched by that of its main ally.

New military aid has been blocked in Congress since December due to resistance from the most radical conservatives.

The Biden administration has tried to maintain at least some aid, announcing $300 million in additional weapons last month and $138 million in emergency aid for maintaining a key missile defense system in beginning of the week.

“If Congress doesn’t help Ukraine, then Ukraine will lose the war,” Zelenskyy warned Sunday to a team of celebrity ambassadors, including Americans, who are championing Ukraine’s cause abroad.

Although his increasingly drastic tone may be seen by some as an attempt to pressure Washington into action, Ustinova, the Ukrainian parliamentarian, said Zelensky’s warnings are not an exaggeration.

kyiv’s European partners are trying to increase their contributions and fill the gap left by the lack of American aid. But all the capabilities that currently exist in Europe cannot offer even half of what the United States has, Ustinova said.

France has taken a more forceful approach to the conflict and Britain’s top diplomat was in the United States this week to call for more support.

Above it all is former President Donald Trump.

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron visited the Republican candidate in Florida, and Zelensky is increasingly facing in public the prospect of a second Trump presidency.

Zelensky said last week he still hoped for a “positive vote” in Congress, and even suggested kyiv would be willing to get the aid in the form of a loan rather than financial aid, an idea floated by House Republicans and which appears to come from Atout.

With just six months until the U.S. election, the possibility that Trump could completely isolate Ukraine or try to force it to cede territory as part of a truce deal with Russia could be on minds in kyiv.

Trump’s promise to end the war in just 24 hours has fueled anxiety in Ukraine, although Zelensky said Wednesday he would listen to Trump’s ideas on how to end the war “with pleasure” he had the opportunity.

“The absence of American aid creates problems,” said Bielieskov, the Ukrainian military analyst. “But on the other hand, if a Trump administration awaits us,” he said, “perhaps it is better to gradually get used to living without the United States in 2024 rather than to a emergency situation in 2025.”

Daryna Mayer reported from kyiv and Yuliya Talmazan from London.



News Source : www.nbcnews.com
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