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The decisive phase of the war in Ukraine is about to begin.
It starts in the next few weeks. Here's what I've learned.
As a new member of the Armed Services Committee, I’ve spent the last few weeks learning as much as I can about the war in Ukraine.
I’ve spoken with generals, Pentagon officials, and some folks close to the ground.
Now that I’m reasonably well-informed, it’s time to report back on what’s about to happen in Ukraine.
(And yes, everything I’m about to tell you is unclassified).
Both Ukraine and Russia are about to launch major spring offensives.
Russia has already begun theirs to some extent - it’s been focused on the city of Bakhmut, which is now surrounded on three sides by Russia’s mercenary army, the Wagner group. Bakhmut has been under siege for months and, whether or not Russia succeeds in taking it, the price it has paid has been severe.
Ukraine’s spring offensive is waiting for thousands of its troops to finish getting the upgraded equipment and training which they’re receiving at NATO bases across Europe as we speak.
Most people I’ve spoken to believe this will be the decisive phase of the war. Both sides are going to try to deliver a knock-out punch over the next 6-8 months.
Neither side starts in a dominant position. Russia will have the advantage of more troops, but Ukraine will have basically every other advantage: Training, equipment, morale, allies.
Most importantly, Russia still does not have air superiority. Their planes can’t fly over Ukrainian forces because they’ll be shot down - not by the Ukrainian Air Force, but by its air defense artillery which has played a crucial role in allowing Ukrainian forces to have freedom of movement on the ground.
That’s why air defense artillery is still the number one piece of equipment Ukraine is asking for, followed by regular artillery and then armored vehicles.
According to Ukraine, after those priorities, it’s fighter jets. They’ve requested F-16s but the concern is that the quickest we could get the planes, spare parts, maintenance teams, and trained pilots in place would probably be next year and placing that order would drain billions that need to be used for more immediate priorities, forcing a trade-off that would hurt the spring offensive.
Ukraine’s best offensive hope right now is the influx of new tanks and armored vehicles from the allies. Namely, Leopards, Challengers, Abrams, Bradleys, and Strykers.
BUT - using these vehicles to their full potential means learning a completely new way to fight. It takes a much higher level of coordination to synchronize the use of artillery, armor, and ground forces.
It’s called combined arms warfare and it’s the crux of how Western forces fight. It requires a completely different level of communication among your troops and commanders, and a lot of software goes with it.
Ukrainians are getting a crash course in that training right now and then they’re going to have to turn around and put it to use in combat immediately.
That’s not an ideal timeline, but, they’ll be going up against Russian civilians that just got drafted and thrown into the war against their will with very little training and older equipment.
Russia’s shortages have become significant. It’s taking tanks out of reserve storage from the Cold War. They’re so short on tank commanders that there are reports of medics operating tanks.
Russia is also running low on artillery shells and is turning to China for more. We have intelligence that indicates China is considering supplying Russia. If they do, it will be a huge international problem for China - which China very well knows, which is why it hasn’t happened yet.
Russia is also using its own prisoners as cannon fodder by sending them to the front and treating them as intentional targets by letting them be fired upon by Ukrainians in order to reveal the Ukrainian firing positions, then counter-attacking those positions with artillery.
(Those of you familiar with Russian history will see echoes of its past in this kind of approach to warfare. A move like that is straight out of Russia’s long history of treating its soldiers as maximally expendable cogs in their rumbling war machine. What strikes us as horrifying is, for them, simply revisiting some of their classic techniques.)
It has also become clear that Russia has kidnapped thousands of Ukrainian children and is paying Russian families to adopt them and even change their names so they can’t be found after the war is over. This came up several times in our last committee hearing, as did the fact that this is the latest entry in the long list of Russian war crimes so far.
Many of my constituents have asked how much we’ve spent helping Ukraine. It’s about $113 billion, which is about 2% of everything the federal government spends in a year. However, that’s not all in the form of a cash payment to Ukraine. A big piece is us putting a price tag on the military equipment we’re sending them and crediting that against the amount we’ve said we would spend.
A major focus of our first hearing was on oversight for the assistance we’re giving them. We had the Inspector General for the Department of Defense come in and answer questions - some quite hostile - about any evidence of equipment or funds being diverted. As it turns out, there’s a lot of oversight built into the system. We’ve given them handheld scanners to help us see where equipment is, we’ve had members of Congress personally visit to see the stockpiles, and - frankly - Ukraine has an enormous incentive to maintain a strong relationship of trust with us, particularly when it comes to how they’re using what we’re sending. For his part, the Inspector General told us that there is no evidence that weapons are being diverted.
One big question that many are asking: How does this end?
The most succinct answer I’ve heard is from a senior official at the State Department, who said this in a hearing:
“We want to put [Ukraine] in the best possible position so that whether this war ends on the battlefield, whether it ends with the diplomacy or some combination, that they are sitting on a map that is far more advantageous for their long-term future and that Putin feels the strategic failure.”
That sounds about right to me.
That’s the latest. I’ll keep you posted.
Rep. Jeff Jackson
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