Ukraine Worries About Losing Its Biggest Weapon: U.S. Military Aid


In the two years since Russia launched its full-scale invasion, Ukraine has had its back to the wall many times, in many forms: fighting with Molotov cocktails and guns handed out to the population, coping with blackouts and fleeing refugees. But there was always the prospect of more American aid on the horizon.

That support was critical, analysts and leaders in Kyiv say. The United States has provided about half of the foreign military assistance to Ukraine’s arsenal, roughly $47 billion.

But this week leaders in Kyiv have waited anxiously to see if that lifeline will come to an end, as a stalemate between lawmakers in the United States Congress threatens to end, for now, American support for the war against Russia.

A measure that would allow American arms to flow to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan and fund border security was defeated in a Senate vote on Wednesday amid growing Republican opposition and deep division on Capitol Hill.

After the vote, the Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, said he would try an alternate path, pushing a vote on foreign military aid stripped of the more contentious measures on immigration. Democrats and Republicans alike expressed some optimism for the new measure, but by Wednesday evening, lawmakers were bogged down again. Mr. Schumer recessed the Senate until noon on Thursday.

But even if the Senate approves the aid, its fate in the House remains uncertain.

Ukraine’s army would not suddenly be overwhelmed, analysts say, but the degradation of its forces would be inexorable. European nations lack American-level stockpiles of weapons and ammunition, and would be unlikely to fill the gap, military analysts say.

“Ukraine could effectively hold for some part of this year” without more American military aid, Michael Kofman, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said in a telephone interview. “But over time there would be no prospect to rebuild the military, and they will start to lose slowly.”

The absence of further American help, he said, would “point to a dour, negative trajectory in the latter half of this year.”

Not since the first chaotic months of the invasion, when Russian troops poured across the borders from every direction and the country rose up en masse to resist, has Ukraine faced such a precarious moment in the war.

Russia, its military invigorated by weaponry from Iran and North Korea, is pressing assaults on towns and villages along nearly the entire frontline in the east. President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine is preparing a shake-up in the civilian and military leadership that could oust a popular commanding general.

Since the end of last year, Russia has stepped up its large-scale aerial bombardments in a bid to exploit dwindling supplies of critical Western air defense munitions and inflict maximum damage. A volley streaked into Kyiv and other cities early Wednesday, jolting residents awake with air alarms and explosions.

“Ukraine needs help,” Andriy Yermak, the head of the Ukrainian president’s office, said in a statement. “Only the joint efforts of the democracies will stop the criminal Putin.”

The shrinking level of aid, officials and soldiers say, is affecting Ukraine on the battlefield, where Russia is using its advantage in artillery and personnel to whittle away at Ukraine’s defenses.

In the fiercest fighting in the east, over the city of Avdiivka, the ratio of Russian to Ukrainian artillery fire is five to one, Ukrainian commanders say. Soldiers say they no longer shoot at just one or two approaching Russian soldiers because they are too short of ammunition and don’t want to use it on small groups.

The American military and financial aid package stalled in Congress would not be spent entirely on new weaponry for Ukraine; a portion would go to replacing armaments from U.S. stockpiles already provided to Ukraine. Other funds would go toward maintenance and spare parts, as well as financing training, intelligence sharing and demining.

Ukraine has found itself outgunned before. In the first days, the military handed rifles from the backs of trucks to all willing to take them in Kyiv, as Russian troops advanced through the city’s suburbs. Eventually, new American weaponry arrived, such as the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, known as HIMARS, and Patriot air defense missiles.

Now, Ukraine is once again seeking ways to adapt and improvise by expanding domestic armaments manufacturing and relying more heavily on drones built from commercially available, off-the-shelf parts.

To that end, Mr. Zelensky announced a new military branch this week: the Unmanned Systems Forces. Mr. Zelensky said that the goal was to replicate on land Ukraine’s success in combating a vastly superior Russian naval force in the Black Sea through the use of maritime drones.

At the moment, however, Russia’s superiority in firepower and personnel has Ukraine on the back foot along most of the front line.

To some extent, Ukraine has contributed to its own troubles. Corruption, long a problem in the country, has siphoned off millions in the acquisition of supplies and other areas. Mr. Zelensky occasionally overplayed his hand in scolding allies for not providing enough support, drawing rebukes.

On the battlefield, Ukrainian military leaders ignored United States advice to focus their counteroffensive in one specific region. Instead, they spread out the attacks and failed to achieve a breakthrough despite months of trying.

For soldiers, uncertainty over the future supplies of ammunition has started to sink in. “There is some fatalism,” said Capt. Oleh Voitsekhovsky, a member of a drone reconnaissance unit. “It is what it is but we still need to do our tasks. The number of deserters is small but continuous.”

Gen. Anatoliy Barhylevych, commander of Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces, said he still anticipated American military aid would come through. “But no matter how it turns out, the Ukrainian military will carry on our fight,” he said. “We don’t have another choice but to fight this enemy.”

The European Union, collectively, has provided about $148.5 billion in assistance since Russia launched its full-scale invasion, surpassing the total of $113 billion appropriated by the U.S., of which $75 billion was directly allocated to Ukraine for humanitarian, financial and military support and another $38 billion in security assistance-related funding spent largely in the United States, according to the Institute for Study of War, a Washington-based research group.

While European and Asian allies have significantly ramped up their efforts to support Ukraine and Kyiv is trying to scale up its own weapons manufacturing, the I.S.W. researchers said that American assistance remains essential.

The United States, they wrote, is “the main source of sufficiently large quantities of essential military equipment, such as M1 Abrams tanks, armored personnel carriers, advanced air defense systems such as Patriots, and long-range strike systems.”

Western support for Kyiv has not kept pace with Moscow’s military stockpiles, as Russia has scaled up its production of drones, worked out kinks in its military industry and been bolstered by supplies from Iran and North Korea. In the barrage fired Wednesday, two of five missiles that struck the eastern city of Kharkiv were manufactured in North Korea, a city police official said.

Across the country, the volley killed at least five people, according to local officials. As the Ukrainian Air Force warned that missiles were streaming toward Kyiv along the Dnipro River around 7 a.m., interceptor missiles streaked through the skies to meet the threat. But air defense systems to stymie attacks like that are running low, officials have said, and are desperately needed. U.S. officials have estimated that if funding went through by March, there might be no gap in air defenses.

Away from the battlefield, a collapse in American financial aid would send ripples through Ukraine’s economy, with budget cuts and rising inflation. American assistance would include about $11 billion in nonmilitary funding.

The European Union has approved a four-year, $54 billion assistance package that partly covers Ukraine’s needs. But without American aid, wartime support from the International Monetary Fund that is contingent on the United States continuing to support Ukraine’s government would have to be renegotiated. Ukraine might be forced to print more money, potentially leading to a debilitating inflationary cycle.

As much as Ukrainian officials have gone out of their way to express gratitude for all the support the United States has provided in the past, there is a palpable disappointment at Washington’s dysfunction, which Ukrainians say is already costing lives on the battlefield.

“Every day we have corpses that we would not have had if we had this assistance,” Oleksii Danilov, the Secretary of the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council, said in an interview this week in Kyiv.

Ukraine has found itself in dire situations before, he said, and there is only one response: to fight with whatever you can. If the West stops supplying weapons, he said, “we will bite them with our teeth.”

Maria Varenikova contributed reporting.

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