European leaders have warned the continent's defence industry is struggling to meet Ukraine's military demands as US support erodes faster than anticipated.
US President Joe Biden has so far failed to overcome opposition to a Ukraine support package in Congress in an election year where he is likely to face his predecessor Donald Trump.
Ukrainian troops have struggled on the battlefield, partly as a result of ammunition bottlenecks. They may soon be forced to withdraw from strategic areas such as the eastern town of Avdiivka, which is facing relentless Russian shelling.
“The lack of availability of artillery shells on the Ukrainian side is currently producing a really unfortunate battlefield situation,” said Rafael Loss, policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank.
“If it's not rectified soon, we're looking either at tactical retreats or maybe a collapse of the front line in certain areas,” Mr Loss told The National. “We're now seeing that what Europe has done for the past 24 months is insufficient.”
For European countries, which view the conflict between Russia and Ukraine as an existential one, the perspective of Russia making military gains two years after its full-scale invasion is worrisome and has prompted some accusatory finger-pointing among allies.
Europe's defence industry should stop selling weapons to other countries than Ukraine, said the EU's top diplomat Josep Borrell on Monday during a visit to Poland ahead of his fourth visit to Ukraine.
“The quickest and cheapest and more effective way of increasing our supply of ammunition to Ukraine is to stop exporting to third countries,” he said. “This is a political decision that the member states have to take,” he added, referring to the bloc's 27 countries.
Mr Borrell has also recognised that Europe had reached only 52 per cent of its goal in delivering one million artillery rounds to Ukraine in the past year.
Yet he has struck an optimistic note, saying that Europe should be happy it managed to increase production by 40 per cent, although he said this trend should continue.
“Unfortunately, this story is not over,” he said, about the war in Ukraine.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has been explicit about the need for other European countries to contribute more to Ukraine.
“Germany is contributing a lot,” he said last week at a meeting of EU leaders, calling for “a great deal of effort from everyone”.
Mr Scholz did not name countries but his call was widely interpreted as a reference to France, which has contributed far less than Germany to Ukraine's war effort.
With over €17.1 bn in military aid to Ukraine, Germany was the second largest donor to the country after the US between January 2022 and October 2023, according to the Kiel Institute. In contrast, France only contributed €0.54 bn in military support.
“Some of the frustration among German leadership is aimed at Paris to get back at French President Emmanuel Macron occasionally for blaming Germany for not taking certain decisions,” Mr Loss said.
Mr Scholz has often been criticised for holding off the delivery of crucial weapons systems such as Leopard 2 tanks last year. France however has been faster at delivering strategically significant equipment including Scalp cruise missiles that can target command centres and fuel depots behind the Russian front line.
“Germany thinks France can do more in terms of quantity and France is right to say that Germany could adopt a more deliberate strategy to change the dynamic in the battlefield,” said Mr Loss. “Both are right in thinking the other could do more.”
He said that the bickering between Berlin and Paris illustrates the broader European problem highlighted by Mr Borrell – that the European defence industry is designed for exports to the rest of the world and has been slow to adapt to Ukrainian needs.
One example is the IRIS T German air defence system which has been deployed to Ukraine since 2022 in large part due to previous orders from Egypt. “Essentially, Egyptian orders allowed [German] producer Diehl to upscale production and the German government to quickly divert one of the systems destined for Egypt to Ukraine instead,” said Mr Loss.
European countries have started setting up so-called capability coalitions to respond to long-term Ukrainian needs in air defence, artillery and other areas.
For many, however, these efforts are coming too late. The reasons are manifold, said Mr Loss, who pointed at some degree of hope that Ukraine's counter-offensive last summer would produce better results than it did as well as optimism about the US Congress' ability to agree on funding.
“The EU is doing a lot,” he said. “It's just not moving at the speed of relevance or at the scale required to address this crisis.”