Ukraine’s Nightmare Scenario Is Now Its Reality

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It was a nightmare scenario that Ukrainian and Western officials had feared for months. Western officials have watched as Russia stacked up precision-guided munitions to launch targeted attacks on Ukrainian critical infrastructure in the winter while keeping up the pace of strikes on cities using unguided “dumb” bombs. 

And on Friday morning, it became a reality. Russia conducted a hailstorm of strikes across Ukraine, hitting Kyiv, Dnipro, Lviv, Zaporizhzhia, Odesa, and Kharkiv. There were at least 158 drone and missile strikes in all, which damaged hospitals, a shopping mall, and schools, killing at least 31 people and injuring more than 160. 

The numbers are still going up as search and rescue teams pick through the rubble. Russia fired its missiles with so much abandon that the Polish government confirmed one of the Kremlin’s projectiles entered its airspace. In the chaos that engulfed the Kyiv streets, one man tried to stop the fires from spreading by driving his burning car away from his neighbors. 

The renewed barrages have Ukrainian officials and U.S. experts questioning how long they’ll be able to keep the lights on during winter—or hold territory—especially with the long tail of U.S. military aid running out, unless Congress acts soon. 

Ukrainian officials believe that Russia’s capacity to strike is even greater than what it just showed off: The Kremlin can fire off about 300 Iranian-made suicide drones in one attack on Ukraine and about 150 ballistic missiles in one shot on Kyiv, said Sasha Ustinova, a Ukrainian lawmaker.  

And with the Ukrainian counteroffensive stalled and fresh weapons not flowing until January at the earliest, how resilient will the Ukrainians be? 

“The Ukrainians are heading for a tough winter, for obvious reasons,” Swedish Defense Minister Pal Jonson said in an interview earlier this month. “But I think that the Ukrainian morale is much, much higher than the Russian morale. What is crucial right now, of course, is that we all will step up support.”

But that morale is now getting tested, as Ukrainians were shaken out of bed by dozens of air raid alerts that lit up their phones. And the aid isn’t coming—at least until the U.S. Congress gets back from recess in the second week of January, and maybe for even longer. 

“Ukraine needs funding now to continue to fight for freedom from such horror in 2024,” Bridget Brink, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, wrote in a tweet screenshotting the numerous air raid alerts sent to Kyiv residents.

U.S. officials have seen movement across the nearly stagnant front lines slow considerably in recent weeks, a trend that is expected to continue. The weather in Ukraine has hit subzero temperatures and piles of snow have mostly halted forward movement along the 600-mile front, underscoring the prospect of several months of attrition warfare. Ukraine is already making moves to lower the draft age to get more men onto the battlefield.  

Ukraine doesn’t need any silver bullets, experts say. It just needs the regular kind. 

“We’re clearly past the ground counteroffensive now,” said Peter Rough, a senior fellow and director of the Center on Europe and Eurasia at Hudson Institute. “Since it won’t get large numbers of longer-range precision fires, Ukraine probably needs to entrench and defend right now—and absent Congress passing the supplemental, even those defensive lines may not remain stable.” 

Still, Jonson said the Ukrainian military has been getting some access to more long-range strike weapons, which has forced Russian ships and aircraft to move farther away from the front lines. But Ukraine has had to build its military while fending off the invasion: Jonson said that Kyiv is operating about 600 types of Western weapons systems, while ferrying fuel and spare parts across the front line. All that on roads that will be coated with sleet, snow, and ice. 

Even with its limited arsenal of Western-provided long-range weapons like British-made Storm Shadows and the cluster variant of the U.S. Army Tactical Missile System, Ukraine has still made a dent, knocking out a Russian tank landing ship in Crimea on Tuesday. And experts believe that Russia’s fragile logistics system—which was never designed for continuous military operations across Europe’s second-largest country—is a good target.  

“If they had longer-range weapons, they could completely wreck the logistics system,” said Ben Hodges, the former head of U.S. Army Europe. “I think they know this is a real vulnerability for the Russians, particularly in winter.” 

But Ukrainians fear they are already running out of munitions—and time. Though Western-provided air defenses blanket much of Kyiv, they are not enough to defend against far-flung Russian attacks that could dot the country during winter. As much as Ukraine needs more air defenses to blunt attacks like Friday’s firestorm, Ukrainian officials have indicated that the falling temperatures have already shifted their priorities: Attrition warfare means a premium on artillery fire, and Europe is far behind on its target to produce a million artillery shells by March 2024.

“The biggest problem we’re going to run into is when they start shelling us heavily,” Ustinova said. “Because we will not have enough munitions.” 

But Ukraine has been forced to cut military operations as aid has dried up. Ukrainian Brig. Gen. Oleksandr Tarnavskyi, who heads up a group of forces in the southern push, told the BBC this week that Ukraine is facing particularly acute shortages of Soviet-era 122 mm and 152 mm shells, which still make up a large portion of Kyiv’s military arsenal. And if the Ukrainians want to apply forward pressure in spite of the snow, they have to clear entire minefields in front of them, only for the Russians to reseed the deadly explosives from the air. 

The Russian war chest is still heavily stocked. Hanno Pevkur, the Estonian defense minister, said in November that Russia still has about 7,000 to 8,000 tanks in reserve. Meanwhile, Russia has turned its sanctions-battered economy into a war economy. The Kremlin plans to spend 6 percent of GDP on defense next year. And Russian President Vladimir Putin’s deals for drones with Iran and ammunition with North Korea have indicated to Western officials that Russia’s game is quantity, not quality. 

“It doesn’t matter. As long as it fires, as long as it unfortunately kills Ukrainians, it is good for Russians,” Pevkur said. “They are increasing their production, especially ammunition. They don’t care about the quality. They care about the quantity.” 

Western officials believe that there are 300,000 to 400,000 Russian troops on Ukrainian soil, across a swath of occupied territory that is about the size of the contiguous Baltic states. Russian casualties have totaled about that many troops in the 22 months since the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion began. But experts caution that the cannon fodder won’t last forever. It might not have to last that much longer, though.

In November, Russian forces claimed to gain ground around the eastern city of Avdiivka, where Western officials believe the Kremlin is trying to make a pincer move to encircle the town, the site of a major coke fuel and chemical plant. They’ve also set their sights on the important railway junction of Kupyansk. 

“They just keep pushing these guys into a meat grinder to convey the sense that they have endless resources,” Hodges said. “They don’t have endless resources.” 

For now, though, absent Western aid, Russia’s focus on eastern Ukraine could lead Kyiv to cede more ground. 

“That’s very painful for us, because we pay thousands of lives to get every single kilometer,” Ustinova said.  

“They are already taking more territory,” she added. “Look at the map.”

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Ukraine’s Nightmare Scenario Is Now Its Reality

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