After 6 months of war, weapons from the West remain vital to Ukraine

·8 min read
Pallets of AT4 shoulder-fired anti-tank weapons are loaded onto a plane at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, destined for Ukraine. The U.S. is the largest financial backer to Ukraine in its conflict with Russia, having committed $13.5 billion US in security spending since the Biden administration took office. (Laura Clementson/CBC - image credit)
Pallets of AT4 shoulder-fired anti-tank weapons are loaded onto a plane at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, destined for Ukraine. The U.S. is the largest financial backer to Ukraine in its conflict with Russia, having committed $13.5 billion US in security spending since the Biden administration took office. (Laura Clementson/CBC - image credit)

At the Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, pallets of shoulder-fired anti-tank weapons are delicately and meticulously loaded onto a plane — one of many flights each week bound for Eastern Europe and the war in Ukraine.

Each shipment is arming Ukrainian troops on the ground, giving them the ability to continue the fight against a much larger Russian military.

To date, the U.S. has committed $13.5 billion US in security spending to Ukraine since the Biden administration took office. On Wednesday, it announced another instalment of military aid — mainly weapons and equipment — with a price tag of nearly $3 billion US.

President Joe Biden touted the contribution as the country's "biggest tranche of security assistance to date," while the Defence Department said the package underscores its long-term commitment to Ukraine.

As the largest financial backer to Ukraine in its conflict with Russia, Biden has previously said the U.S. will maintain its steadfast commitment to providing aid "for as long as it takes."

Leo Correa/The Associated Press
Leo Correa/The Associated Press

Ukraine is heavily relying on financial and military support from Western nations to sustain its fight, which this week dragged past the six-month mark.

But some experts say that support could start to falter, given the potential of an economic recession, rising food prices and a looming energy crisis that could lend itself to a challenging winter ahead for Europe.

For now, though, there are no signs of slowing at the air base in Dover.

While the U.S. base is a small cog in the overall war machine, its impact isn't lost on Capt. Annika Sims, the flight commander for airfreight operations at Dover.

"It's seeing the airmen know that they have a part in defending a country's freedom. That is what we are here for, that we're a country that can support that down range," Sims told CBC News, during a visit in early August. "And we do that through logistics."

Ousama Farage/CBC
Ousama Farage/CBC

Given all of the cargo headed to Ukraine, operations at Dover have tripled since the conflict began, said Sims, and continue to be "extremely busy."

 

Over the past six months, Sims said the base has moved millions of pounds of weapons and munitions, as well as non-explosive and non-hazardous supplies.

Recent shipments from the U.S. include long-range weapons, like howitzers and Javelin anti-armor systems, meant to break through armoured material, and the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, which offers long-range precision.

'Thousands of rounds per day of artillery'

When Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, many expected a quick victory.

Six months later, it has largely turned into a war of attrition. The Russian offensive has become bogged down as Ukrainian forces increasingly target key facilities far behind the front lines.

The battle has also become an artillery war, with Ukraine expending as many as 6,000 rounds per day. Russia — with a military roughly 10 times larger — is said to be firing many more.

While the economic cost of the war hasn't been totalled, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told NATO leaders in June that his country was in need of about $5 billion US a month to keep his government afloat.

WATCH | A look at the weapons sustaining Ukraine's fight against Russia:

"It's thousands of rounds per day of artillery alone — and that's a fraction of what the Russians are shooting," said Dan Lamothe, who covers the military beat for the Washington Post.

"So what they are firing on the Ukrainian side, they have to be careful with it. They have to use it judiciously. They need to make sure they're not wasting it."

That means Ukrainian forces are trying to hit very specific targets with their supply, he said.

"One thing we have seen a lot of of late is the Ukrainians are actually targeting, not necessarily only the combat forces that Russia is throwing at them up front, but trying to shoot behind them and hit … ammunition depots and fuel depots, and things that really make it difficult to prosecute a war without," said Lamothe.

Ousama Farag/CBC
Ousama Farag/CBC

It's also why continued Western support is so vital for Ukraine.

For its part, Canada has committed or delivered $626 million in military aid to Ukraine since the war began. (The figure doesn't include loans or other humanitarian support.)

That puts Canada's military contribution at fifth in the world, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, which tracks international aid for Ukraine.

And earlier this week, Canada announced it was moving its military air detachment from the Middle East to the United Kingdom, in light of ongoing efforts to supply Ukraine with weapons and ammunition.

Allies' support for Ukraine war

Readying for a lengthy war

Former senior American diplomat Dan Hamilton doesn't see U.S. support changing, at least not in the near future.

"I don't believe that it is just a question of money. It's an investment in our security — and I think that's how President Biden has portrayed it," said Hamilton, now a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

"I think Prime Minister [Justin] Trudeau, other leaders have all made that case."

Laura Clementson/CBC
Laura Clementson/CBC

The next six months likely holds a great deal of uncertainty, Hamilton said, but as long as Ukraine has Western backing, he predicts the conflict could continue for some time.

"I don't see a real end to this, in any real sense," he said.

Both sides are betting the other will get tired and start to retreat or give in, said Hamilton, but the destruction and losses Ukraine has suffered, pitted against Russian President Vladimir Putin's unwillingness to back down, is likely to mean a lengthy fight.

"There's fatigue setting in," said Hamilton. "Putin absolutely bets on the West not being able to sustain support to Ukraine — and Ukrainian people not being able to sustain the war. And that's his absolute calculation."

The best thing to counter Putin, then, is to "show that we can sustain that and provide assistance to Ukraine going forward," he said.

Weapons committed and delivered to Ukraine

According to a poll published last week by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 71 per cent of Americans surveyed supported economic assistance to Ukraine, and 72 per cent supported providing additional arms and military supplies.

With midterm elections around the corner, however, analysts say that tide could change.

What's ultimately still needed, Hamilton said, is even more military aid.

"To sustain the conflict, taking all the tremendous losses they've had, they need Western assistance. There's just no doubt about it."

Maintaining unity

According to Keir Giles, a U.K.-based expert on Russia and security issues, the war may not actually be won on the battlefield, but rather by Russia's economic stranglehold on Ukraine — and the rest of Europe.

"We've always known that winter is going to be hard for maintaining support for Ukraine, because that's when the energy price rises that have been sparked by this blackmail by President Putin," said Giles.

"Ukraine's primary task is still as it was on Day 1, and even before the war: Making sure that its international backers are kept on side and that international unity that keeps it in the fight is preserved."

Evgeniy Maloletka/The Associated Press
Evgeniy Maloletka/The Associated Press

In terms of unity from Ukraine's allies, Giles said that "we've always seen cracks in support," and Europe, in particular, has divided along traditional lines.

"There are those countries that recognize the importance of withstanding Russia and stopping Russia in its tracks; those are the front-line states, the ones bordering Russia, the Nordics and Baltics and of course, the U.K.," he said.

But that leaves the central countries in the European Union, distanced from Ukrainian borders, thinking it may be more important to actually get back to business as usual with Russia, he said.

"That's where we hear the urging on Ukraine to find some kind of settlement, some kind of concession to end the fighting. Because then, of course, it ends the economic pain," said Giles.

But any concessions, ceasefire or territorial surrender would be "disastrous" for Ukraine, said Giles.

Reports of prisoners joining the fight

As with any war, there's also the human toll. On Monday, the commander of Ukraine's armed forces said that nearly 9,000 Ukrainian military personnel have been killed in the war — a bleak figure that doesn't include the toll of civilian lives.

More than 6.8 million people have also fled Ukraine since the conflict began, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency, while millions of others are displaced within the country.

While Russia hasn't confirmed its military casualties, some estimates put the figure as high as 20,000 to 25,000. Recent reports suggest that Russian prisoners are now being recruited for the front lines, as the war drags on.

WATCH | Captured in Mariupol, this mother fears she may never see her son again:

CBC News reached out to the Russian Embassy in Canada to ask about casualties and the reports of depleted military resources. In an emailed response, it said there is no personnel shortage issue, nor are there issues with supplies.

Russia has "enough capacity and capabilities to promote and defend our national interests," the statement said.

"Our troops on the ground consist solely of professional service members. They are a highly skilled, compact force, fully capable of completing all the tasks set by the Supreme Command."

When asked how long Russia is planning to continue its military operation in Ukraine, the embassy said: "The operation will take as much time and effort as necessary to fulfil its objectives."