Ukraine is in a race against time to save the eastern Donbas region as relentless Russian artillery and air strikes threaten to turn the tide of the war, and support for Kyiv’s continued defiance among some west European allies appears to be slipping.
Ukrainian officials say they urgently need advanced US-made mobile multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) to halt Russian advances in Luhansk and Donetsk. The rockets would be capable of striking Russian firing positions, military bases, air strips and supply lines at a range of up to 300km (185 miles).
“We are in great need of weapons that will make it possible to engage the enemy over a long distance,” Ukraine’s commander-in-chief, General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, said. “The price of delay is measured by the lives of people who have protected the world from [Russian] fascism.”
Ongoing disagreements in Washington have held up MLRS deliveries. Some of President Joe Biden’s national security advisers are said to be fearful Ukraine may use the rockets to hit targets inside Russia, a development that could spark an escalation drawing in the US and Nato. Kyiv has previously launched attacks on Russian soil.
Moscow, keenly aware of the game-changing potential of the rocket systems, has already voiced strong objections. “If the Americans do this, they will clearly cross a red line,” said Olga Skabeeva, an influential Russian state TV host whose views reflect the Kremlin’s. Russia’s response could be “very harsh”, she warned.
US news outlets reported on Saturday that Biden had agreed to provide some rocket systems as part of a major new US arms package for Ukraine to be announced this week. The package may also include another advanced weapon, the high mobility artillery rocket system, known as Himars.
The decision reportedly followed talks between the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister. “Heavy weapons on top of our agenda, and more are coming our way,” Kuleba said after the talks.
But doubts remain about which weapons systems will be provided, and the timing of the US move. The White House and the Pentagon have yet to confirm the reports.
“I won’t get ahead of decisions that haven’t been made yet,” the Pentagon spokesman, John Kirby, said. Despite the delay, he insisted it was “not too late” to send new weapons to Ukraine.
If the US defies Russia’s warnings and goes ahead this week, the UK is expected to simultaneously announce it will also supply advanced long-range rocket systems. The British version of the MLRS, which can fire 12 missiles in less than a minute, has a more limited range of 84kms (52 miles). Earlier this month, Britain announced an additional £1.3bn in military support.
Speaking in Prague on Friday, the foreign secretary, Liz Truss, said it was “completely legitimate” for Nato and EU countries to provide more weapons, including tanks and planes, to Ukraine despite Russia’s objections. Like Boris Johnson, Truss says Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, must be seen to lose the war. Britain has demanded a return to Ukraine’s pre-2014 borders.
The UK’s uncompromising stance is not shared by leading European countries shaken by Russia’s advances, whose focus is increasingly on notional peace negotiations. Henry Kissinger, the veteran American diplomat, fuelled this debate last week in Davos by suggesting Kyiv should prepare to make concessions, amounting to a possible de facto partition.
Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz held an 80-minute phone conversation with Putin, during which they urged the Russian president to hold “direct serious negotiations” with Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The French president and German chancellor called for an “immediate ceasefire and a withdrawal of Russian troops”.
Keir Giles, of London-based thinktank Chatham House, said a quick end to the conflict appeared to be the priority for France and Germany.
“There are already worrying indications that the flakiest of the western European partners may be discussing between themselves how to force a surrender on Ukraine in the form of territorial concessions in order to end the fighting … It is more important to them [France and Germany] to end the fighting than to arrive at a workable outcome,” Giles said.
This apparent shift has angered east European governments such as Poland, whose president accused Germany of failing to keep a promise to provide heavy weapons. After Italy last week put forward a peace plan, which was dismissed by the Kremlin as “fantasy”, Edgars Rinkevics, Latvia’s foreign minister, warned that, in any case, Putin could not be trusted to stick to any settlement.
“Any agreement with Russia isn’t worth a broken penny,” the Ukrainian presidential adviser and peace talks negotiator, Mykhailo Podolyak, said. “Is it possible to negotiate with a country that always lies cynically? … Russia has proved that it is a barbarian country that threatens world security. A barbarian can only be stopped by force.”
Pressure to talk peace or make concessions is feeding Ukraine’s concerns that it is in a race against time to turn around its battlefield fortunes. The Kyiv government said on Saturday that its forces may have to retreat from Luhansk to avoid encirclement.
Russia’s defence ministry said the eastern Ukrainian town of Lyman had fallen under the full control of Russian and Russian-backed forces in the region. Meanwhile, a group of independent international legal experts accused Russia of committing genocide.
Notwithstanding recent Ukrainian setbacks, Peter Ricketts, a former UK national security adviser, said the west must not back away now.
“Having supported Ukraine and encouraged them to stand up to Russian aggression in the early phase, we’ve now got a real obligation to see it through for the long term,” he said. “It would be disastrous to scale down western support after they’ve done the really hard bit to face the Russians. We’ve got to knuckle down for the long term. Military support can reduce over time and probably the economic support will become more important as the fighting gradually subsides.”