Comment: U.S. aid vital but won’t solve all of Ukraine’s worries

Russia can send more soldiers into battle than Ukraine, forcing hard choices for its leaders.

By Daniel DePetris / Chicago Tribune

For Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his troops on the front line, relief is hopefully coming soon.

On Saturday, the U.S. House of Representatives muscled through a $61 billion military aid package at a time when Russian forces are continuing to chip away at Ukrainian positions in the east. After six months of intense discussions between House Speaker Mike Johnson and his fractious Republican conference, Johnson put the Ukraine aid legislation on the floor, knowing it wouldn’t sit well with the far right wing of the party. In the end, the House passed the legislation, sending it back to the Senate for consideration.

Ukraine and its backers in Washington and Europe were thrilled. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen took to X to congratulate the House for moving the bill after six long months. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz pressed the Senate to quickly take up the legislation, adding that it doing so would show Russian President Vladimir Putin that his assumption about outlasting the West was a bad bet. Zelensky was the happiest of them all, jumping on American television the morning after the vote and asserting that the new infusion of military assistance means that Ukraine has a chance at victory.

All of these celebrations, however, may be premature. Far from the ultimate victory Zelensky and his team are hoping for, the new U.S. aid will likely stabilize the current battle lines and at best enable Ukrainian forces to fend off further Russian gains. Advancement by Ukraine shouldn’t be ruled out, but expectations ought to be kept at a reasonable level.

This isn’t to suggest that tens of billions of additional dollars won’t have any effect on the battlefield. It most certainly will. The Ukrainian army, for instance, has been heavily outgunned by the Russians since the fall. During testimony to the House Armed Services Committee this month, Gen. Christopher Cavoli, the top U.S. military officer in Europe, told lawmakers that Russia had a 5-1 advantage over Ukraine in artillery shells, a ration that would turn into 10-1 if the House didn’t move on the aid bill. Ukrainian troops, seeing their inventory depleted, had to ration shells and choose targets accordingly. The Russians, in contrast, could blanket an entire area with artillery without hesitation.

The lack of artillery rounds wasn’t Ukraine’s only problem. Kyiv was also running out of the air defense interceptors that were absolutely crucial to destroying Russian missiles. The Russians no doubt understood this and tried to exploit it, launching missile bombardments for the mere purpose of forcing the Ukrainians to use what they had left. The Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, which Russia tried but failed to capture during the war’s initial months, is now brutalized on a daily basis with incessant Russian mortar and missile fire. Ukraine’s energy infrastructure is taking a beating as well. All of this is by design. Russia is forcing the Ukrainians to prioritize which targets matter most to them: positions close to the front, civilian areas behind the lines or fuel sources that keep the country’s lights on.

The new U.S. aid will help with all of this. You can bet U.S. officials at the Pentagon drew up a list of gear and equipment months ago. After more than two years of supporting Ukraine with ammunition, air defense systems, tanks and anti-tank missiles, the Pentagon long ago became an expert at delivering this kind of equipment. Once Biden signs the bill into law, it’s full steam ahead.

Yet it would be a gross misreading of the war to assume that military aid alone will fix all of Ukraine’s problems. It won’t.

For one thing, all the bullets, interceptors and shells in the world won’t address Ukraine’s manpower issues. Part of the issue is that Russia simply has a population three times the size of Ukraine and therefore has more bodies to throw into the war. (Ukrainian officials assess that Russia is recruiting 30,000 men into the army every month.)

But beyond demographics, Ukrainian politicians have also waited too long to broaden their own recruiting pool. The Rada, the Ukrainian legislature, was in essence frozen in time, unable to come to a consensus on how to enlist more men, how to reform a corrupt and inefficient draft process and whether to demobilize soldiers who were fighting in the trenches for the past two years. Zelensky and his former top commander, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, had a very public back-and-forth about the right number of troops that needed to be drafted to fill up the army’s ranks; and it likely cost Zaluzhnyi his job.

This month, Ukrainian lawmakers finally signed a bill that decreased the draft age from 27 to 25, increased penalties for draft dodgers and required all men between the ages of 18 and 60 to update their personal information with draft officials.

Even so, it took about a year and 4,000 amendments to pass the legislation. And the fact that a provision to demobilize troops after three years of active duty was stripped at the insistence of the Ukrainian military’s leadership was a pretty clear indication that Ukraine needs all of the soldiers it can get.

The question on everybody’s minds, whether additional U.S. military assistance will start streaming into Ukraine, is now answered. The next question, which is more important over the long term, is whether Ukraine can use the new kit to good effect. Assuming it does, Zelensky will then have to ponder yet another monumental one: Is it time to probe for a diplomatic off-ramp to end the war on favorable terms or should we gamble on another counteroffensive to win it all?

The first is controversial; the second, highly unlikely.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune. ©2024 Chicago Tribune. Visit at Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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