May 24, 2022
It made for an extraordinary sight recently on the broken, battered streets of Kharkiv on a warm Saturday afternoon. A Russian T-80 main battle tank, draped in camouflage netting and Ukrainian flags and pennants, was broken down in front of a neighborhood grocery store, where weary shoppers shuffled past with barely a glance. “Russian junk,” the tank commander joked. He was happy to talk as long as we didn’t identify him, or his unit.
The tank, captured a month before by Ukrainian forces who had doggedly defended the country’s second-largest city, had a clogged oil filter and the crew lounged in the intermittent sunshine waiting for the mechanic from the local depot to bail them out.
The commander, bearded, jovial but haggard, simply beamed through his ballistic sunglasses at how the tank’s 125 millimetre cannon had been turned back on the Russians and ultimately helped drive them away from the city. It killed many Russians, he said proudly.
What he wouldn’t give, the commander said, for an American-built Abrams M-1 tank or even a German-manufactured Leopard 2, the kind used by the Canadian army.
In many ways, the scene was emblematic of the kind of war the Ukrainians have been forced to fight, where they’ve had to beg, borrow or steal what they need to survive.
A global contact group, intended to coordinate pledges of military equipment from more than 40 allies in and outside NATO, met for a second time Monday at the U.S. air base in Ramstein, Germany.
Throwing caution to the wind
Despite a veneer of allied solidarity with Ukraine, there is an undercurrent of bitterness which occasionally rises to the surface. You heard it in Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s virtual speech to NATO leaders in mid-March and again recently with Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba’s remarks in interviews with U.S. media.
The thrust: Thousands of lives would have been saved had the United States and western allies provided sophisticated military aid requested by Ukraine months before Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the full-scale invasion in February. They are not wrong, said former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst. “It’s very simple,” he said. “Western aid, especially U.S. aid, has been essential for Ukraine, but it has been slow. It has been cautious, overly cautious. And if we had sent what we should have sent, when we should have sent it, Ukraine’s position would have been stronger.”
Canada, one of the last western countries to send lethal aid, cannot escape criticism in this vein. A request by Kyiv for arms and munitions was under “review” in Ottawa for months before Russian troops stormed across the border. “Canada has been surprisingly timid and late, just like the United States,” said Herbst, who served for 31 years as a foreign service officer in the U.S. State Department and is now a senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.
Given the large Ukrainian diaspora population in Canada and its leading role as a military trainer in Ukraine, with all of the insight that would bring, “you’d expect more from Canada, but they have been no better than the Biden Administration, perhaps even worse,” Herbst added. “Of the major NATO allies, the one country that has shown strength and vision was the U.K.” In late January, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised non-lethal aid to Ukraine, he said Canada wasn’t sending lethal weaponry because it didn’t want to give Russia any excuse to invade Ukraine.
So, how badly has Ukraine been mauled? Reliable official figures are hard to come by and third party estimates vary wildly. In a rare moment of clarity, Zelensky hinted on Sunday that as many as 100 Ukrainian soldiers were dying each day in the Donbas. A few weeks ago, he told CNN up to 3,000 troops had been killed defending the country. It is the material losses that preoccupy Phillip Karber, president of the Potomac Foundation who has made 39 trips to Ukraine since the 2014 annexation of Crimea by Russia and is considered one of the foremost western experts on the eight-year-old war.
He’s done his own calculations based upon long-established military formulas and the kind of intense fighting he’s witnessed over the last three months. Since the Feb. 24 Russian invasion, Karber believes that a little less than half of Ukraine’s tanks have been destroyed or damaged; almost two-thirds of the army’s Soviet-era armoured personnel carriers have been wrecked and up to a quarter of the military’s artillery pieces.
Ukraine’s defence ministry would not confirm to him, or CBC News — for operational security reasons — how close Karber’s estimates might be. It is, however, against such a stark backdrop that Ukraine’s pleas for heavy weapons and equipment can be better understood and urgently appreciated. Several western military experts, who’ve been quietly advising the Ukrainian government at different levels, have privately remarked at how officials reluctantly share information, other than providing lists of military equipment.
More NATO than NATO
As the brutality, horror and atrocities of the Russian invasion revealed themselves, western governments have shed their inhibitions and agreed to ship a variety of surplus heavy military equipment. They are stuffing the pipeline, proposing to fill gaps and create an army equipped with a hodge-podge of equipment that — significantly — comes with a complex supply and spare parts chain as well as different, often specialized training needs. “You know that there’s this cornucopia of systems,” said Karber, “I laugh, half as a joke but it’s actually serious. Ukraine is going to have more different types of NATO weapons, more standardized with other NATO nations than any other country in NATO.”
The easiest for the Ukrainians to integrate is the Soviet-era equipment being donated from other former Warsaw Pact countries, including Poland which has provided T-72 tanks and early BMP infantry fighting vehicles. Ukrainian troops know how to drive and fight with them.
What will be more difficult is integrating more high-tech western equipment, be it French mobile artillery guns, Norwegian air defence missiles, Australian M-113 tracked armoured personnel carriers, or Canadian and American M-777 towed howitzers. All of them have different supply needs and training sets that could take months to get up and running. All of it will help Ukraine hold the line, stay in the fight, and not lose the war.
Building a new army on the run
Not losing, however, is different than victory and Karber said, in order to win, the Ukrainian army will have to conduct a major, theater-wide counter-offensive to reclaim territory. To do that, he said he believes, they’re going to have to create a totally separate strategically-employed army group, one that could and should be equipped with more modern western military vehicles.
The United States could, out of its existing arsenal of recently-retired gear, equip the Ukrainians with hundreds of M-1 Abrams tanks, Bradley infantry fighting vehicles — enough to tip the balance on the battlefield in favour of the Ukrainians. “Do the systems exist? And are they available in significant numbers and are not in current active use in the U.S., or NATO countries, or potential donor countries? The answer is yes,” Karber said.
The other important key to turning the tide is airpower. Karber said recently retired American F-16 fighters and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, with sufficient airframe life, could be made available and would be necessary for any potential large-scale counter-offensive. It would take political will on the part of NATO allies to help Ukraine build such a force, Karber added.
Avoiding a war of attrition
Without some kind of major counter-offensive, retired U.S. Army lieutenant-general Ben Hodges said the two countries will be reduced to exchanging blows. “I do believe that Ukraine is going to end up winning, and I use that word on purpose,” Hodges said, noting that U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin recently talked about Ukraine “winning” the war. “You know, 20 years in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’ve never heard any administration use the word win. It was always, you know, make things better, no safe haven for terrorists, but I mean, there was no, nobody’s talking about winning.”
Russia, he said, has chosen a war of attrition in the east of Ukraine. Hodges said he doesn’t believe Moscow has the capacity to launch a major offensive and could possibly become vulnerable by late summer, as the bite of international sanctions takes its toll on the Russian defence industry. “So I’m thinking that Ukraine, if I was advising them, that’s what they would be doing with a lot of this new equipment, new troops, training them, preparing them for employment, in a counter offensive sometime in end of August, early September,” Hodges said.
Both Hodges and Karber say it’s important for allies not to be lulled into a false sense of security by the recent advances of Ukrainian troops in clearing Russian forces away from both Kyiv and Kharkiv.
While the Ukrainians stopped the invaders at the gates of both cities and gave them “a really, really bloody nose,” as Karber put it, the fact is – in the end – Russia chose to cede the territory rather than having its forces chewed up further.
Outside of Kharkiv, over the last several days, there is still the distant rumble of artillery and see-saw battles for some villages that the Ukrainians have reclaimed.
Sitting on his captured iron monster on a Kharkiv street corner, the Ukrainian tank commander was seemingly unconcerned. “If they try to come back,” he said through an interpreter,”we will cut their throats.”
Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.