27th Feb 2024


Ukraine can defeat Russia, if EU and US speed up arms supplies

  • Ukraine will become "the valley of death" until Western materiel begins to arrive in right quantities (Photo: Evhenii Maloletka)
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Speaking at an event in Washington this week, internal market commissioner Thierry Breton urged EU countries to instruct their defence industries to prioritise deliveries to Ukraine.

Breton's plea comes as the deadline is looming for the EU's pledge to deliver one million 155mm shells to Ukraine by March — a goal that is widely regarded as being unrealistic.

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Shifting the goalposts, Breton said that the EU would at least have the capacity to produce the million shells by March, but experts argue that the EU is hampered by a regulatory culture unsuitable for warfare.

This week's special EU summit on Thursday [1 February] is to cover the question of military support to Ukraine, as European leaders attempt to convince Hungary to lift its veto on Ukraine's disbursements from the European Peace Facility (EPF).

The EPF is an off-EU budget paid for by member states worth some €12bn in total.

Hungary is also vetoing a larger, €50bn EU economic-support package for Ukraine, raising tensions.

And the summit will give leaders the chance discuss use of profits from frozen Russian assets to help Ukraine as well as a 13th round of anti-Russia sanctions.

But Breton's appeal to European capitals illustrates the difficulty the EU has in delivering weapons to Ukraine, even it agrees on all its funding in the end.

Through the EPF-financed ammunition pledge, the EU has delivered over 300,000 rounds so far, mainly sourced from existing stocks and the international market.

The EU has struggled to increase its production capacity amid squabbles between EU officials, the defence industry, and member states over exports to third countries and pre-existing contracts.

But simply blaming industry for the delays was too easy, said Dick Zandee, from the Clingendael Institute, a Dutch think tank.

"The industry has contractual obligations, and if they breach those contracts they have to pay the cost," he said.

European governments have also been slow to commit to the long-term contracts the industry wants, Zandee noted.

"These are private companies. Before they will invest in increased production capacity, they want to be sure the demand continues for years," he said.

And the EU is hampered by a regulatory culture unsuited for war, he added.

"All sorts of certification procedures in EU member states are geared to a system in which it doesn't matter whether artillery shells are delivered in February or April," Zandee said, but for Ukraine it's different, as they need the materiel urgently.

Jamie Shea, a senior fellow at the Friends of Europe think-tank in Belgium and a former Nato official, expressed similar concerns.

"It's not just lazy politicians not moving fast enough, it's that the system has not been geared to respond. It's like pulling a lever but nothing happens, because it has lost connectivity," he said

In his view, the EU has generally acted too slowly. "The political dynamic of the EU is not connected to the dynamic of the war in Ukraine," Shea said.

"Europe is crossing the rubicon on cruise missiles months after the offensive in which they could have been used was over," he added, looking at the battlefield situation in Ukraine.

War of attrition

The EU's sluggish deliveries are especially problematic now that the conflict is developing into a war of attrition.

And there is a severe discrepancy between the number of shells promised and Ukraine's actual needs.

Kusti Salm, a senior official in the Estonian ministry of defence, estimated that the Ukrainians need to fire a minimum of around 6,000 155mm shells a day, or 180,000 a month.

"Currently they can fire about 2,000 a day, so that's about three times less than the critical minimum," Salm told EUobserver.

"This has been a fire-superiority war since mid-2022. And in order to win a fire-superiority war, you need fire-superiority. It's a simple calculation," he added.

And the costs are high, he pointed out: "Ukrainians compensate their lack of ammunition with their lives."

According to Salm, the Ukrainians themselves estimate that in order to gain the upper hand, they need about 350,000 shells a month.

This would amount to 4.2m shells a year — over four times Breton's current estimate of the EU's maximum capacity.

Meanwhile, the US is also trying to ramp up production but lags behind Europe.

"They should reach a million shells by 2026 [in terms of Ukraine deliveries]. The US could only deliver more earlier on because it had more storage," said Lorenzo Scarazzato, from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a think-tank in Sweden.

The EU needs to step up and be less reactive, added Shea — especially now that continued US military support is becoming uncertain due to the upcoming US elections in November.

"You've got to align your weapon deliveries with the strategy you expect the Ukrainians to fight. This is what went wrong in the spring offensive: first of all, the Ukrainians didn't have enough, but the Europeans have also simply been giving the Ukrainians what they have, instead of what they need. They've just emptied out their stocks." said Shea.

"It's like giving your old Fiat 500 sitting in the garage that you don't really need," he said.

Maths of victory

If the EU did manage to seriously increase production, Salm estimated that Ukraine could gain the upper hand "somewhere in the first or second quarter of 2025 — but for the time in between we don't have this advantage".

"This will be the Valley of Death," he said, speaking of the interim-period fighting.

But despite this grim outlook, Salm is confident about eventual victory.

The Ramstein coalition, a group that combines the 31 Nato member states and 23 other allies of Ukraine, such as Australia, Japan, and South Korea, would collectively need to spend only 0.25 percent of their GDP on aid to Ukraine to win the war, he calculated.

"This is a rough estimate, but the message is that this is a low figure: this is something we can afford," he said.

Author bio

Piet Ruig is a Brussels-based journalist who previously worked for the Dutch public broadcaster VPRO.

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