West sends more weapons to Ukraine in 'turning point' battle for Donbas

US, UK and Canada responded enthusiastically to Kyiv's appeal for additional arms

European Council President Charles Michel inspecting damage as he is given a tour of Borodyanka, in Ukraine, on Wednesday. Photo: EPA

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Western leaders are scrambling to send more weapons to Ukraine as the battle for the Donbas gets under way.

Ukraine’s allies have responded to a renewed Russian push into Eastern Ukraine with fresh weapons for Kyiv and a vow to intensify Moscow’s isolation from the outside world through sanctions.

After suffering a humiliating blow in the first weeks of the war due to their inability to capture Kyiv, Russian troops have replenished stocks and regrouped for a renewed offensive in the east of the country.

Ukrainian servicemen sit atop an armoured fighting vehicle in Eastern Ukraine. Photo: Press service of the Ukrainian Ground Forces/Handout via REUTERS

What demands has Ukraine tabled?

Kyiv has called on allies to ensure the flow of munitions continues and urged leaders to offer heavy weapons.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been petitioning the US for Soviet-made air defence systems and fighter jets as an alternative to a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

The Ukrainian government has specifically asked its western partners to provide MiG-29s, which its pilots already know how to fly and a handful of Eastern European countries have.

How has the West responded?

The Pentagon said Ukraine had received fighter jets and parts for its aircraft but did not specify the nature of the equipment or its origin.

During a videoconference on Tuesday the leaders of the US, UK and Canada pledged to boost military aid for Kyiv as the war entered its ninth week, and agreed to send more artillery weaponry.

France’s Emmanuel Macron, Germany’s Olaf Scholz, Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen were among other leaders on the call.

US President Joe Biden is expected to announce a new military aid package about the same size as last week’s donation worth $800 million (£613 million) in the coming days, sources told Reuters.

The latest consignment which is beginning to arrive in Ukraine this week includes 18 howitzers, 40,000 artillery rounds, 200 armoured personnel carriers and 11 helicopters.

The UK government is reported to be planning to dispatch armoured anti-aircraft vehicles to Ukraine.

The Stormer vehicles launch Starstreak anti-aircraft missiles which can be used to target planes and helicopters.

The government has not confirmed a report by The Sun newspaper saying the vehicles would be sent, but Ben Wallace, Britain’s defence secretary, is expected to update MPs this week.

A defence source said: “It is no secret that the UK has committed to helping Ukraine with its anti-air capabilities.

“The defence secretary will be making a statement to parliament this week.”

Earlier this month Britain invited Ukrainian generals to Salisbury Plain to view the military kit which could become available to the former Soviet nation, including armoured vehicles.

Germany's Mr Scholz is under fire from his own MPs for his reluctance to send military aid to Ukraine.

European Council President Charles Michel on Wednesday became the latest western politician to visit Ukraine. He was given a tour of Borodyanka, a town 40 kilometres north-west of Kyiv that was heavily bombarded by Russia before its forces withdrew,

More weapons, more sanctions

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson used Tuesday’s virtual meeting to highlight the “critical need” for further military support for Ukraine as it faces a Russian offensive in the Donbas. He called for more sanctions and arms to help Kyiv and tighten the noose on the Russian economy.

Downing Street said Mr Johnson updated his fellow leaders on his visit to Kyiv earlier this month, and added: “He underscored the critical need for further military support to Ukraine in the face of a major Russian offensive in the Donbas and continuing attacks elsewhere.

“The leaders agreed to work together to find a long-term security solution so that Ukraine could never be attacked in this way again. They discussed the need to increase the pressure on Russia with more sanctions against Putin’s war machine, as well as further diplomatic isolation.

“The prime minister welcomed [US] President [Joe] Biden’s leadership, and the allies agreed to work closely together in the weeks and months to come.”

'Donbas may be a turning point'

Kreminna became the first city to fall to the Russians as part of the battle for the Donbas on Tuesday.

James Black, research leader and co-ordinator of the defence strategy, policy and capabilities research and war gaming portfolio at Rand Europe, said the battle for the Donbas could be a turning point in Russia’s debilitating war.

Russia is in a noticeably stronger position in the region than it was in the north of Ukraine when trying to capture Kyiv. It has airbases nearby across the border from eastern Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists who have been stationed there since 2014 will aid its bid to take control of the region.

“It is potentially a turning point, it’s potentially decisive for the conflict,” Mr Black told The National.

However, he also noted that the Ukrainian soldiers in the Donbas are among the military’s most experienced, given that they too have been fighting in the region since 2014.

“In the east are Ukraine’s best and most professional and experienced forces. They already had the bulk of their more experienced forces there, they know the terrain well.

“The question now is whether those Ukrainian forces reinforced by additional units that they’ve been able to move from the north of Ukraine now that Russian operations there have ended, and boosted by the morale boost, can outweigh the superior numbers of the Russian forces opposing them.”

After a sluggish start to its war effort and setbacks due to logistical failures, Russia is keen to seize the Donbas and tout it as a victory worth paying for, Mr Black said.

“The Russians have something to prove after their poor performance so far; they’re under pressure from the top to deliver some sort of victory for Russia.

“The Russian army has really been battered pretty hard by its failed operations in the north of the country. It’s obviously taken a psychological and political morale blow from failing to seize its objectives at all and indeed failing to seize them as swiftly as Russia thought it would be able to do.

“You can see the [Russian] underestimation of Ukrainian military capabilities but also the Ukrainian will to fight both on individual military unit level and on national political level. You can see that in the way that [the Russians] conducted their operations in the north which were not set out the way that people were expected.

The war, which will on Thursday enter its ninth week, has also brought about an obvious shift in Moscow’s language, Mr Black said.

“It is notable in their public language in the last few weeks that Russia has started shifting away from talking about their objectives being the de-nazification of Ukraine or the demilitarisation of Ukraine towards talking about liberating — in their view — the 'People’s Republics' that they supposedly recognise in the Donbas.”

Updated: April 21, 2022, 6:02 AM
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