Ukraine ‘will have to retreat’ if US aid delay persists

Ukraine faces a potential battlefield crisis due to a lapse in weapons deliveries from the United States, NATO and officials have warned.

“Every day of delay in the decision in the United States on providing more support to Ukraine has consequences on the battlefield,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters Wednesday. “That’s one of the reasons why the Ukrainians now have to ration ammunition and why they are struggling to keep up with the Russians who are now able to outgun them with more weapons and more ammunition than the Ukrainians have.”

Ukrainian forces are bracing for a new offensive from Russia, months after the last shipment of the U.S. assistance that could most efficiently equip them to withstand the blow. The political stalemate in Washington, D.C., where President Joe Biden and House Republicans remain at odds over legislation that provides the funding authority to transfer weapons to Ukraine, has raised the specter of a near-term crisis in Ukraine that many NATO leaders regard as having wider implications to the alliance.

“The war in Ukraine demonstrates how intertwined the security of Europe is with the security of Asia and the Pacific,” Stoltenberg said at a separate press event on Wednesday. “North Korea, China, Iran are supporting Russia’s war of aggression in different ways, so this demonstrates that security is not regional security, it’s truly global, and therefore it’s important that we work together with our Asia-Pacific partners.”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, right, and United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken address the media during a meeting of NATO foreign ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Wednesday, April 3, 2024. NATO foreign ministers gathered in Brussels on Wednesday to debate plans to provide more predictable, longer-term support to Ukraine. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s spokeswoman protested that NATO has “returned to Cold War settings.” In parallel, another senior Russian envoy top diplomat threatened “retaliatory actions” against Japan in the event that Tokyo provides air defense missiles for Ukraine’s use.

“If such data is received and confirmed by specific and reliable evidence, Russia will take retaliatory actions on various tracks,”  Russian Ambassador Nikolay Nozdrev told TASS, a state-run outlet, on Wednesday. “We are making such plans. We would like to avoid such a scenario but we will act in a quick and clear-cut manner if the need arises.”

Air defense systems are among the most critical needs for Ukrainian forces to repel Russian attacks on critical infrastructure around the country. Yet Ukrainian troops will have to begin to relinquish territory to Russian forces if they do not also receive a major influx of artillery, according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

“If you need 8,000 rounds a day to defend the front line, but you only have, for example, 2,000 rounds, you have to do less,” Zelensky told the Washington Post’s David Ignatius last week. “How? Of course, to go back. Make the front line shorter. If it breaks, the Russians could go to the big cities.”

A bipartisan coalition of 70 senators voted to pass a supplemental funding bill that would authorize $60 billion worth of support for Ukraine, another $14 billion of security assistance to Israel, and almost $5 billion “to support key regional partners in the Indo-Pacific and deter aggression by the Chinese government.” That legislation remains stymied in the House, where Speaker Mike Johnson’s (R-LA) razor-thin majority has given a handful of backbench Republicans the potential power to oust the speaker if he allows a vote on the legislation they oppose.

“So it is urgent that the United States make a decision and that the U.S. Congress actually is able to turn the majority … into a concrete decision,” Stoltenberg said. “They assured me that there is a majority in the U.S. and also in the U.S. Congress for support. But so far they haven’t been able to turn that majority into a decision and that’s exactly what we all now are waiting for, and it is urgent.”

Even so, NATO officials already are preparing for the possibility that the 2024 presidential elections produce a U.S. government even more averse to support for Ukraine. Stoltenberg, following a Wednesday meeting of NATO’s foreign ministers, announced that the alliance “agreed to move forward with planning for a greater NATO role in coordinating security assistance and training” for Ukraine.

“We are now in the process of developing a more robust and enduring, institutionalized framework for support to Ukraine,” Stoltenberg said. “There are different ways of ensuring that our support is less dependent on voluntary short-term offers and more on long-term NATO commitments and that we have a stronger organization that creates a more robust framework for our support. And this includes security assistance but also training, and also financing.”

Zelensky’s fear of a breakthrough by Russia shouldn’t extend to Kyiv, according to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who maintained this week that “we already have” ensured that the Ukrainian capital will not fall to the invading forces.

“It is not happening, it’s never going to happen,” Blinken told a French media outlet during a Tuesday visit to Paris. “But thanks to the incredible resistance of the Ukrainian people, and thanks also to the support given to Ukraine by the United States, France, and other countries, Putin’s desire to conquer the whole country, to wipe it off the map, to make it part of a greater Russia, has not materialized and it won’t.”

Yet other NATO allies have acknowledged that Ukraine “will still have to retreat” in the absence of additional U.S. assistance.

“Russia is certainly trying to take advantage of a certain stagnation or insecurity in Western military assistance, intensify air strikes, drone strikes during this period, in order to also sway the West’s will to help Ukraine,” Estonian Defense Forces Col. Janno Mark told a local broadcaster on Monday. “If U.S. military aid does not increase, Ukraine will still have to retreat, or give up certain areas, or shorten the front, because at its current length, it will be very difficult for Ukraine to maintain it with current resources.”

European allies have been scrambling to find alternative means to fill the gap, beyond the weapons and ammunition supplied from their own arsenals. Czech officials have identified 800,000 artillery rounds in stockpiles around the world and have worked in recent months to bundle the finances to purchase those rounds, which should begin to arrive “in Ukraine in June at the latest,” national security adviser Tomas Pojar told Reuters last month.

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Stoltenberg touted that initiative as evidence that “there are constant new announcements by different NATO Allies” to aid Ukraine. His own reported proposal for NATO to pledge the delivery of 100 billion euros worth of aid over the next five years was not adopted this week, but he predicted that some kind of plan would be finalized in time for the annual summit of NATO leaders, which takes place this year in Washington.

“Of course, we need also immediate support,” Stoltenberg said.

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