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Tom Clonan US money is a shot in the arm for Ukraine defence

The security analyst looks at the state of play in the war in Ukraine and assesses how much the agreed US money will help.


THE GREEN-LIGHTING OF $61 billion in military aid to Ukraine will provide a much needed shot in the arm for the defence of Ukraine.

Whilst the US aid package was delayed by over seven months of political wrangling, it has been over a year since Zelenskyy’s forces have received a major injection from the Biden administration of the arms and equipment necessary to mount major combat operations against Putin’s forces.

This led initially to a period of inertia, with a much-vaunted ‘Ukrainian Summer Offensive’ failing to gain momentum in the second half of 2023. This period of static combat across a 1000km front – stretching from Kherson Oblast in the south through Zaporizhzhia, to Luhansk and Donetsk in the north east – deteriorated significantly in early 2024.

Citing shortages of ammunition – particularly artillery rounds and tactical air defence systems – Zelenskyy’s forces have been forced to yield over 360 square kilometres of Ukrainian territory to Russian forces since January. In an attempt to re-invigorate his forces and regain the initiative, Zelenskyy replaced much of his general staff in February – appointing General Oleksandr Syrski as his new Commander in Chief.

His predecessor, General Valeriy Zaluzhny – in addition to highlighting acute logistics and ammunition shortages – also cited the requirement for a greater, more effective mobilisation of Ukrainian citizens to fight in the war. When the invasion began in February 2022, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians volunteered to fight in an armed forces estimated to number approximately 850,000 combat personnel. Recently, President Zelenskyy stated that approximately 31,000 of these troops had been killed in action. US estimates put the total number of Ukrainian fatalities at approximately 70,000 killed and approximately 200,000 seriously injured.

Ukraine’s losses

In terms of personnel and combat endurance – Zelenskyy’s forces have endured these massive losses over a sustained period of two years of intense combat. There has been no respite for these forces – whose average age is 40 plus. In an effort to address the mobilisation issue, Zelenskyy has recently reduced the mandatory military service age from 27 to 25. However, tellingly, he dropped a proposal to allow combat troops to be demobilised after 36 months of continuous fighting. From Kyiv’s perspective, there appears to be no end in sight for this protracted and brutal conflict.

For Putin, mobilisation does not appear to be an issue, with Russia replenishing its ranks with approximately 30,000 mobilised recruits each month. Putin’s generals also appear to have adopted their tactics on the battlefield in order to exploit Ukraine’s shortage of artillery ammunition and air defence systems to go on the offensive.

In February, Putin’s forces took Avdiivka and are now encroaching on the outskirts of Chasiv Yar. The Russians have been able to make these advances as the Ukrainian military – as a direct consequence of the delays in resupply of US munitions – are now down to about 10% of the reserves of ammunition required for basic defensive operations. In short, Zelenskyy’s exhausted troops have been unable to fire artillery salvoes on Russian troops at form-up points, staging areas and start-lines on massed assaults on Ukrainian positions.

Until recently, the Ukrainian military had been able to mount very successful harassment and interdiction artillery barrages – and comprehensive suppressing fire – on Putin’s ‘meatgrinder’ massed assaults. Now, outgunned by approximately 8 to 1, Putin’s troops have had greater freedom to concentrate their forces and manoeuvre directly on to Ukrainian positions – taking ground in brutal, costly assaults. The centre of gravity of the Russian axis of advance is now clearly targeting the Donetsk Oblast.

Putin pushing through

The recent acute shortage of western supplied tactical air defence systems and ammunition have also allowed the Russians to exploit their air superiority in this area to greater effect. Whilst Putin increasingly targets Ukraine’s major population centres – along with the energy network – with massed drone and missile attacks, it has begun to use massive so-called ‘glide bombs’ to shatter Ukrainian defensive positions on the front line.

This ‘in-depth’ dual strategy – targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure to the rear – whilst pounding Ukrainian front-line positions with relative impunity with very large air-launched Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) represents a major threat to Ukraine. The former element of this strategy represents war crimes and breaches of the laws of armed conflict – the latter threatens the potential of a Russian breakthrough in Donetsk.

Putin’s forces – learning on the battlefield and honing their tactics – have begun to convert tens of thousands of Soviet-era heavy ‘general purpose’ bombs into guided ‘smart’ ‘glide bombs’. These conventional dumb bombs – of which Russia has an enormous arsenal – have been fitted with GPS or the Russian equivalent, Glonass guidance systems and are being launched from outside the range of Ukraine’s air defence systems.

These cheap – but highly effective – JDAMs are launched at altitude from Russian aircraft at relatively safe distances and literally glide to their target. These powerful bombs range from FAB 500 M62 munitions to massive 1,500 Kg FAB 1500 and 3,000 Kg FAB 3000 warheads. Increased use of reconnaissance drones has allowed the Russian military to precisely pinpoint Ukrainian fortified defences and then obliterate them with these glide bombs – with the massive FAB 3000 delivered to the target by Russian aircraft such as SU 35 Fullback fighter bombers. The increased role of Russian aviation in this manner – despite their air superiority – has led to an increase in downed aircraft as Zelenskyy’s forces attempt to meet this new challenge.

If Putin’s forces take Chasiv Yar, their likely next steps will involve probing attacks toward the towns of Druzkhivka and Kostiantynivka. This would allow Russian forces to assault Ukraine’s strategic defence hubs at Kramatorsk and Sloviansk. It is believed that Putin and his generals are keen to make progress in this offensive prior to the May 09th Victory Day Parade in Moscow. In seeking to do so, they are also seeking to exploit that narrow window of continued vulnerability – before Ukrainian forces are bolstered, replenished and re-equipped by the long-delayed US military aid package.

For Zelenskyy, what happens in the next few weeks on the battlefield in Ukraine will be determined by the speed of the logistics and supply chain of weapons and ammunition to his depleted forces. It is believed that much of the equipment and ammunition has already been forward deployed to Poland in order to speed up their delivery. In the longer term, Kyiv will hope that the acquisition and deployment of up to 60 state of the art F-16 fighter jets might deny Russia its air superiority in Donetsk and Luhansk – thus inhibiting its current battlefield advances.

Russia’s response

For Putin, he will redouble his efforts in the coming days and weeks – seeking a breakthrough in Ukraine’s moment of vulnerability. There has even been talk from the Kremlin in recent days of re-taking Kharkiv. Whatever the propaganda, in the longer term, Putin will watch the US presidential elections very closely – with a Trump victory a major blow to the prospect of indefinite, unqualified US support for Ukraine.

As Europe’s NATO member states and the EU arm themselves in response to this depressingly persistent regional threat – the global security situation continues to deteriorate. As a consequence, global arms expenditure has reached an all-time high of over $2440 Billion dollars. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has stated that global military spending is at its highest in over 60 years – with increases for the first time ever on all continents.

As we inhabit a period of intensifying geo-political instability and flux, regionally and globally, Ireland will increasingly have to address its own, unique, security, defence and intelligence concerns. From my perspective, engaged neutrality ought to remain central and key to our foreign policy perspectives in these fraught times – with Ireland as a strong voice for peace and reconciliation in the world.

In order to vindicate that neutral status, Ireland also needs to seriously invest in our defence, security and intelligence infrastructure, in all realms – in the air, maritime, ground and cyber domains. As the world arms itself, Ireland needs be a strong voice for peace. However, as events in Ukraine and the Middle East have demonstrated, we can only effectively advocate for peace, justice and our own interests from a position of self-reliance, strength and security.

Dr Tom Clonan is a retired Army Officer and former Lecturer at TU Dublin. He is currently an Independent Senator on the Trinity College Dublin Panel, Seanad Éireann.

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