Why Russia and the West are both escalating the Ukraine war

Moscow is beefing up its army, while Ukraine is pushing for tanks and fighter jets. What's going on?

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz speaks next to a Leopard 2 battle tank in Ostenholz, northern Germany, last October. AFP
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Timelines are everything in the Ukraine conflict, and with that in mind last week was very consequential for the course of events.

How long does it take to learn to fly a modern fighter jet? Importantly, that appears to be a question with more than one answer. The staggered nature of despatching supplies to the armouries in Ukraine is now getting more attention – on both the Kyiv and Moscow sides – than the currently glacial changes in the actual frontline.

Next week will mark a year since the invasion. Where we stand after a recent recruitment cycle by the Russian army is at 300,000 – bigger than it was at the outset of the war.

Ukraine has benefitted from shipments of sophisticated artillery, air defences, shoulder-fired missiles as well as tens of billions of pledged resources from the US and EU. Since the start of this year, it has achieved its long-held goal of main battle tanks and is now seeking the airpower it needs to provide cover for its forces.

The strategy of countries backing up Kyiv in its fightback, most particularly Washington which is exercising alliance leadership, is one of escalation. The manner in which this is taking place suggests that overall goal remains, as it is for the Kremlin, a negotiated end to the conflict.

Consider the pressure Kyiv is able to exert, from its position of underdog, on its own allies.

When the blockage on access to main battle tanks was most intense, there was pressure on Berlin. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was painted into a corner. The left-of-centre party establishment with its historic closeness to Russia became a handicap weakening the overall alliance that supports Ukraine.

Speaker of the UK House of Commons, Lindsay Hoyle, holds up the helmet of one of the most successful Ukrainian pilots, presented to him by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in London last week. Getty Images
There is a longish window in which the outlines of a how to bring this conflict to a resolution are available to the diplomats and security official

Mr Scholz’s style of leadership is to retreat into his own inner sanctum and deliver a decision when it is clear what direction the clamour for action has already taken.

The nimble advocates for Ukraine, including by all reports his own Green Party foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, easily took on Mr Scholz and his reluctance to act. When the announcement came, it was soon overtaken by new demands.

Somewhat as the Scholz team had been briefing, the Kyiv government was calling within hours for the fighter jets capability.

The tanks, of course, will take several weeks to arrive in Ukraine. There are few operational versions of the Leopard II tanks available in Germany. So the headline figures of as many as 300 tanks being available from Germany and its allies have proven something of a chimera.

The delivery of tanks is a complex task. Not only are there issues of strategic roads and rail lines remaining safe. A complex disinformation campaign would have to be put in place to ensure the Ukrainians get what is sent on the way.

The US, for example, has promised 31 of the jet-fuel power Abrams tanks but its officials now say it will take two years from the decision until the machines are operating with Ukraine’s forces.

Meanwhile, the Dutch and the Danes have committed funds to recondition mothballed Leopard I tanks and then train the Ukrainians to take those on to the battlefield.

So while it is raining tank initiatives all of a sudden, the moment when the tracks hit the road remains a long way off.

The question over how long it takes to train an airforce pilot to fly Nato-standard advanced fighters is just as fraught. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s description of every Ukrainian pilot as a king in his country during his visit to the UK had a powerful impact.

US Air Force F-16 fighter jets. AFP

To start from scratch to train a combat-ready pilot of the stealth fighter F-35 is estimated to take four years.

The Ukrainian pilots are probably among the most experienced combat flyers in the world at this stage, so the timeframe would be a lot shorter. But no one wants to donate a $100 million specialised war machine that is then crashed by an unready pilot.

At the same time, a years-long timeline could be condensed into months.

The issue of where the aircraft will come from and what type of fighter is best for Ukraine will almost certainly take just as long to resolve. The military experts seem to favour US F-16s of which there are many models dotted around Europe.

Support exists for alternatives, such as the Swedish Gripen and the UK’s Typhoon. Or even something that would be very effective in the type of frontline fighting now going on in Ukraine, such as the A-10 Warthog. It’s Gatling guns are designed to give close air support in tank and infantry battles. The US has more than 250 it has been trying to retire for a decade.

Decisions can be made swift or slow but deliveries that matter are a long way off. Russia has its own offensive calculations to make about how to position for its own advantage.

There is a longish window in which the outlines of a how to bring this conflict to a resolution are available to the diplomats and security officials.

It is not a contradiction to say that the war could last for years longer and see the framework in which its resolution could also be thrashed out. Certainly the timeframes of the military donations for Ukraine’s forces seem to indicate that is part of the calculations on both sides.

Published: February 13, 2023, 5:00 AM