Ukraine war is reaching pivotal moment that could determine long-term outcome, intelligence officials say


This pivotal moment could also force a difficult decision for Western governments, which have so far offered support to Ukraine at a steadily rising price for their own economies and national arms stocks.

“I think you’re about to get to the point where one side or the other will be successful,” said a senior NATO official. “Either the Russians will reach Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, or the Ukrainians will stop them here. And if the Ukrainians are able to hold the line here, in the face of this number of troops, it will matter.”

Three possible outcomes

Western officials are closely monitoring three possible scenarios that they believe may unfold:

Russia could continue to make incremental gains in two key eastern provinces. Or the battle lines could harden into a stalemate that drags on for months or years, leading to massive casualties on both sides and a slowly advancing crisis that will continue to wreak havoc on the global economy.

Then there’s what officials consider to be the least likely possibility: Russia could redefine its war goals, announce victory and try to end the fighting. For now, that scenario appears to be little more than wishful thinking, sources say.

If Russia is able to consolidate some of its gains in the east, US officials increasingly fear that Russian President Vladimir Putin could eventually use that area as a stopping place to push further into Ukraine.
“I am sure that if Ukraine is not strong enough, they will move on,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned on Tuesday in an effort to urge the West to send more weapons faster. “We have shown them our strength. And it is important that this strength is also shown together with us by our Western partners.”

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 solely on mass. Still, “Russian progress is not a foregone conclusion,” said a senior Biden government official.

With the front lines of the conflict engaged in a war of attrition built around reciprocating artillery fire, both sides have suffered massive losses and now face potential manpower shortages. Russia has also suffered losses of as many as a third of its ground forces, and US intelligence officials have said publicly that Russia will struggle to make any serious gains without a full-scale mobilization, a politically dangerous move Putin has so far been unwilling to take.

For now, the fighting is concentrated in two sister cities on either side of the Seversky Donets River, Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk. Ukrainian fighters are almost completely surrounded at Sievierodonetsk.

Black smoke and dirt rise from the nearby town of Severodonetsk during clashes between Russian and Ukrainian forces in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine on June 9, 2022.

While Western analysts believe Ukraine has a better chance of defending Lysychansk, which lies high up, there are already worrying signs that Russia is trying to cut off the city’s supply lines by moving in from the southeast.

“In many ways, the fate of our Donbas is decided” around these two cities, Zelensky said last week.

A preference for Soviet systems

US officials insist that Western weapons are still flowing to the front lines of the battle. But local reports of weapons shortages — and frustrated pleas from Ukrainian officials on the front lines — have raised questions about how effectively supply lines run. Ukraine has begged not only for heavy artillery, but also for more basic supplies, such as ammunition.

Part of the problem, sources say, is that even while Ukraine has run out of old Soviet ammunition to fit into existing systems, there have also been obstacles to the transition of its fighters to Western, NATO-compliant systems. For starters, training soldiers on these systems takes time — and it takes needed fighters away from the battlefield.

In some cases, according to a source familiar with US intelligence, Ukraine simply chooses not to use the unknown Western systems. Despite receiving hundreds of Switchblade drones, some units prefer to use commercial drones rigged with explosives that are more user-friendly.

The Biden administration announced a new aid package earlier this month, including the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systemor HiMARS, which is capable of firing a barrage of rockets and missiles that Ukraine had been urgently requesting for weeks. But although a small group of Ukrainian soldiers started training with the system almost immediately after the package was announced, it needs three weeks of training and has not yet entered combat. The senior defense official would only say that the system will “soon” enter Ukraine.
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Meanwhile, elsewhere in the world, there is still a limited number of Soviet-era ammunition that can be sent to Ukraine. The US is urging countries with older supplies to find out what they have available to give Ukraine, but the grueling artillery battle “wipes Soviet stuff off the face of the earth” for Ukraine and the Allies supplying it, according to a US official .

While the US has a clear picture of Russia’s battlefield losses, it has struggled from the outset to assess Ukraine’s combat strength. Officials have acknowledged that the US does not have a clear picture of where Western weapons are going or how effectively they are being used once they cross the border into Ukraine, making intelligence predictions about the fighting difficult and policy decisions about how and when Ukraine should resupply. difficult.

Biden government senior official told CNN the US is trying to better understand “their” [the Ukrainians’] consumption rate and operational rate”, when specifically asked whether Ukraine is running out of ammunition and weapons. “It is difficult to know,” said this person. It is clear that Ukraine is making heavy use of the artillery provided by the US and other Western countries. because much of it goes in and out of the country for repairs.

That blind spot is partly because Ukraine isn’t telling the West everything, Western officials say. And because the fighting is concentrated in such a small area relatively close to Russia, Western intelligence agencies do not have the same visibility as elsewhere.

“As you get to the tactical level, especially where the majority of the fighting takes place, it’s further away from us, closer to Russia, and the troops are more densely packed, very, very close together,” the said one senior NATO official. “So it’s hard to get a good detailed picture of the status of occasional fighting in the East.”

It is also difficult to predict how the Ukrainian military will perform at this pivotal moment because as casualties have increased, hastily trained civilian volunteers are sent into battle, the NATO official added. Their performance under attack is an unknown amount.

“It’s one thing to have people available, but the question is, are they ready for battle? I think you’re going to see that as a factor,” the official said.

Predicting Putin’s next move

Meanwhile, US and other Western officials see no sign that Putin’s commitment to prosecuting the costly war has waned.

“As for the strategic goals we believe Putin has for Ukraine, I see no signs that they have changed,” the NATO official said. “Putin still believes that he will eventually be successful and will either exercise physical control or gain some form of political control over Ukraine, either largely or ideally in its entirety.”

But even if Putin’s commitment remains rock solid, there is a growing realization that the West’s may not be.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a joint press conference with President of Turkmenistan Serdar Berdimuhamedow after their meeting in Moscow, Russia, June 10, 2022.

As the fighting drags on, the costs to Western governments have continued to rise. Some Western governments, including the United States, have become concerned that the flow of weapons donated to Ukraine has depleted national supplies essential to their own defence.

“It is a valid concern” for the United States, the senior government official acknowledged.

Then, of course, there is the sting of high energy prices and high inflation. As those costs begin to hit ordinary citizens, in the US and in Europe, and media attention begins to drift away from the daily grind of fighting, some officials fear Western support for Ukraine will dwindle.

The spokesman for the International Legion of the Ukrainian army on Monday mocked a “sense of complacency” among Ukraine’s military patrons, saying the country needs much more support to defeat the Russian invasion.

“There is a certain sense of complacency that seems to have fallen on our Western partners that the arms supplies Ukraine has already received are somehow enough to win the war,” said Damien Magrou, spokesman for the International Legion for the Defense of Ukraine. , during a press conference.

‘They’re not! They don’t come close to anything that would allow us to defeat the Russians on the battlefield.”

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