Analysis-Ukraine's battlefield gains may win it more Western arms

·3 min read
A view shows a residential house damaged by a military strike in the village of Udy recently liberated by the Ukrainian Armed Forces during a counteroffensive operation in Kharkiv region

By John Irish

PARIS (Reuters) - By showing over the past week they have a path to beating Russian forces on the battlefield, Ukraine's troops may have won more military support from Western countries and undermined the urge of some Europeans to push Kyiv to make concessions.

Only hours before German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock arrived in Kyiv on Saturday, Ukrainian troops were hoisting their country's blue and yellow flag atop city hall in Kupiansk. The city east of Kharkiv housing the main railway junction that had supplied Russian troops in northeastern Ukraine was captured without a fight after Russia's frontline collapsed.

By nightfall, Moscow had announced it was abandoning Izium, its main stronghold in the area, effectively acknowledging its worst defeat in months. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba had one message for his visiting German counterpart: Russia can be defeated, but we need more help now.

It is an argument that will be harder to brush off now.

"(Military support) is an easier sell when you're winning," a northern European diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity. "My hunch would be that gains by Ukraine are bolstering the understanding that these deliveries have worked and that we may have a chance to finish off the war."

Kyiv's biggest European supporters, such as the Baltic states which have long called for more military aid for Ukraine, say the successes of the last week have demonstrated the case for more support now.

"Those who doubted Ukraine’s strength should be apologising. Ukraine defended us all," Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis tweeted on Monday. "Now is the time for us to show our deep gratitude."

Landsbergis called for stockpiles of advanced western armaments, from army tactical missile systems to tanks, to be sent.

Some even detect signs of movement in Berlin, which Kyiv has long accused of being overly cautious because of Germany's dependence on Russian energy to get through the coming winter. Ukraine wants Germany to send modern battle tanks.

On Monday, German Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht rejected sending tanks "unilaterally". Some saw the remarks as leaving open the possibility that Berlin could do so as part of a pan-European consortium.

"There are growing indications that Washington would support such an initiative," said Rafael Loss, of the European Council for Foreign Relations think tank.

Kyiv has not held back from pressing its point.

"Disappointing signals from Germany while Ukraine needs Leopards and Marders now — to liberate people and save them from genocide," Kuleba tweeted on Tuesday. "Not a single rational argument on why these weapons can not be supplied, only abstract fears and excuses. What is Berlin afraid of that Kyiv is not?"

WEAKNESS

Ukraine's battlefield gains make it less likely that European leaders will want to be seen putting pressure on Ukraine to offer concessions at any hypothetical negotiations.

"Pushing for a ceasefire in these conditions would be seen as a weakness and exploited by Moscow. (It) would mean the West is not respecting its own principles. It would look bad," the northern European diplomat said.

French President Emmanuel Macron, denounced in Kyiv earlier in the war for saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin should not be "humiliated", has lately toughened his language.

Pressuring Ukraine to negotiate would be "very dangerous" for long-term European security architecture, a French diplomatic source said, adding that Moscow could not be allowed to formalise gains acquired through military aggression.

Justin Bronk, a senior research fellow at Britain's RUSI think tank, said no Western country would accept Russian occupation of its territory "if they could stop it".

By proving it can fight back, Kyiv can convince the West to stand by that principle, he said.

"I think it will encourage rather than suppress willingness to deliver weapons."

(Additional reporting by Simon Lewis, Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart in Washington, Sabine Siebold in Berlin and Belen Carreno in Madrid; Editing by Richard Lough and Peter Graff)