Arming Ukraine is not turning the tide. Is the answer vastly more weapons, as Ukraine says, or a bitter truce?
BRUSSELS — Losing ground to Russia’s brutal advance in the east, Ukraine on Monday demanded an arsenal of sophisticated Western weapons many times greater than what has been promised, or even discussed, underscoring the rising pressure on Western leaders to reconsider their approach to the war.
The tactics that served the Ukrainians well early in the war have not been nearly as effective as the fighting has shifted to the open ground of the Donbas region in the east, where Russians are relying on their immense advantage in long-range artillery. Russian forces are poised to take the blasted city of Sievierodonetsk, the easternmost Ukrainian outpost, and are closing in on the neighboring city of Lysychansk.
With the leaders of France, Germany and Italy planning their first visit to Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, since the war began, they and other Western leaders have to decide whether to double down on arming Ukraine or press harder for negotiations with Moscow to end the war.
Ivan Krastev, who heads the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria, calls the divisions in Europe a struggle between the “justice party,” strongest in the east, that wants Russian pushed back and punished, and the “peace party,” strongest in the west, that wants the war to end quickly, minimizing the short-term human and economic damage.
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, calling for more arms and insisting that his country must regain every scrap of lost territory, is putting himself more adamantly than ever in the justice camp.
In an interview, a top adviser to Mr. Zelensky on Monday sharply ramped up his country’s urgent calls for more and faster delivery of more modern weapons and gear from NATO countries. Suffering heavy losses of soldiers and equipment in Donbas, Ukrainian forces are running out of ammunition for their Soviet-era artillery, and Ukrainian officials contend that Russian artillery in the east is out-firing their own, 10 to 1.
Mykhailo Podolyak, the Zelensky adviser, said Ukraine needs 300 mobile multiple rocket-launch systems, 1,000 howitzers, 500 tanks, 2,000 armored vehicles and 1,000 drones to achieve parity with Russia in the Donbas region where fighting is concentrated — numbers many times beyond anything that has been publicly discussed in the West. The United States has promised four of the mobile rocket launchers and Britain a few more; Washington has sent a little more than 100 howitzers, and other nations a few dozen more.
Such immense requests may not be realistic or practical — the howitzers, for example, are arriving faster than Ukrainians can be trained to use them — but Mr. Podolyak, Mr. Zelensky and others clearly mean to keep up the pressure on the West, complaining daily that the current arms flow is woefully inadequate.
“If you think we should lose, just tell us directly ‘we want you to lose,’ then we will understand why you give us weapons at this level,” Mr. Podolyak said in an interview in the sandbagged presidential office compound in Kyiv.
Better Understand the Russia-Ukraine War
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Western leaders agree that Ukraine’s ability to fight back against the Russian invasion will depend to a large degree on how fast and in what quantities their countries can supply heavy weapons. They have imposed tough economic sanctions on Russia, supplied significant financial and military aid to Ukraine, and insisted publicly that it is up to Ukraine’s own, democratically elected leaders to decide how and when to negotiate with Russia.
But they also worry that a long war will bring in NATO countries and even cause President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to escalate what has been a brutal but conventional campaign. President Emmanuel Macron of France, in particular, has twice said it was important not to “humiliate Russia.”
European officials also worry about the damage being done to their own economies by inflation and high energy prices, and about the likely domestic political backlash. And many in Europe are eager to find a way, even if it’s a temporary cease-fire, to resume Ukrainian grain exports as global food prices soar and parts of the world face a threat of famine.
Such talk raises hackles in Kyiv and in the capitals of Central and Eastern Europe where Russia is most feared, and officials questioned how committed their friends to the west are to beating back Mr. Putin’s aggression. Leaders of several countries that were once part of the Soviet bloc believe this war is about more than Ukraine, and that the Kremlin’s ambitions to re-establish that sphere of influence and overthrow the European security order must be met with defeat, not a cease-fire.
Europeans expect the conflict to continue, with neither side ready or willing to engage in meaningful negotiations until the fighting either bogs down or one side gains a decisive advantage. The question may be what outcome, if any, might allow both sides to claim a victory.
The European Union is seriously weighing whether to quickly make Ukraine an official candidate for membership despite its history of corruption and poor governance — something Mr. Zelensky dearly wants, both to bind his country more tightly to the West and to improve its devastated economy. What European diplomats do not know is whether that might make Ukraine more willing to make concessions to end the war.
And it is not clear that anything short of total victory would satisfy Mr. Putin, no matter the cost — nor is it clear how he would define that.
A trip to Kyiv by Mr. Macron, Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany and Prime Minister Mario Draghi of Italy has not been officially confirmed, and specific dates are being kept secret for security reasons, but it would take place before the Group of 7 summit meeting set to begin June 26.
A meeting with Mr. Zelensky in Kyiv would have obvious symbolism, displaying the support of these large, rich West European countries for Ukraine’s defense, its territorial integrity and its hopes for a European future. The three are likely to announce new arms supplies for Ukraine and discuss various options to help Ukraine export its grain from the blockaded port of Odesa.
Whether there will be any talk of a cease-fire or negotiations is unclear.
Under questioning, a spokesman for Mr. Macron, briefing reporters anonymously, said that France wants Ukraine to be victorious — but Mr. Macron has himself never said those words publicly. And Mr. Scholz, who has been criticized for not supplying more arms, faster, to Ukraine, says that Russia must not win — but has never said that Ukraine must achieve victory.
Mr. Draghi has broken with an Italian tradition of closeness to Moscow by strongly supporting Ukraine, even for membership in the European Union, a subject Mr. Macron has said is unrealistic for decades but will be a major issue in the next European Union summit meeting later this month.
European officials are discussing whether E.U. countries, in combination with Turkey and countries that need the grain, like Egypt, can arrange some sort of naval escort for ships exporting food.
Ukraine and Russia met for cease-fire talks early in the war, but the discussions yielded nothing, with each side accusing the other of not being serious about peace. Ukrainian officials now say that talks with Russia would be premature, potentially cementing into place Russian gains and, in effect rewarding aggression.
Early in the war, particularly in the north, the outgunned Ukrainians inflicted punishing losses on Russia using weapons like shoulder-fired antitank missiles. With Russian forces in Donbas now more reluctant to be drawn into short-range combat, that tactic no longer works.
An increasing flow of Western weapons and ammunition, Ukrainians say, can help them turn the tide in the east — or at the very least stop the Russian advance — as Russian forces suffer heavy casualties and run out of their own more advanced weapons.
But few believe that this war is anywhere near a conclusion, or that either side is close to collapse, even as the economies of both Russia and Ukraine continue to suffer.
Russian forces pushed into the center of Sievierodonetsk, the Ukrainian military said on Monday, as street battles raged in the ruined, largely abandoned city. Ukrainian officials want to make the capture of the city as costly as possible to the Russians in men and matériel, but fear it could soon be surrounded, trapping a large number of Ukrainian troops.
Even if Sieviernodonetsk and Lysychansk fall, completing the Russian takeover of the Luhansk region, Ukraine is still battling for control of parts of the neighboring Donetsk region, and, in counteroffensives, its forces have retaken territory around Kharkiv in the northeast and Kherson in the south.
Andrew A. Michta, a German-based American political scientist, argues that the peace party in Europe is missing a historic opportunity to deliver a pointed message to Mr. Putin, who has openly compared himself to Peter the Great, the first Russian ruler to declare himself emperor.
“The defense of Ukraine is not only about national sovereignty and territorial integrity — historically, the two foundational principles of democratic governance — but ultimately about pushing Russia out of Europe, thereby ending three centuries of its imperial drive,” Mr. Michta wrote for Politico.
“For the first time in the modern era,” he wrote, “it would force Moscow to come to terms with what it takes, economically and politically, to become a ‘normal’ nation-state.”
Reporting was contributed by Andrew E. Kramer and Valerie Hopkins from Kyiv, and Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Lysychansk, Ukraine.