What does the U.S. need to do if it truly wants Ukraine - and not Russia - to win the war?

Russia recently began another offensive against Ukrainian forces, this time in the Kharkiv region. This attack was not a surprise development — Russian forces had been preparing themselves over several months for the offensive.

What has taken many international observers by surprise, however, is that Russian forces are making notable gains in the area. The Russia-Ukraine war over the past several months has been described as a stalemate and Russia's latest attack as a ploy. If so, it's proving to be a successful one.

The Russian advance should not have taken observers by surprise. Part of the reason for the attack's success is that Ukraine's defenses were inadequate. That's primarily due to the haphazard and delayed way that Ukraine's allies have provided military supplies to the country.

These lags made an advance by Russia all but inevitable.

Misaligned goals

At the outset of the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, most analysts expected the country to fall rapidly. Ukraine, however, did not collapse in the face of Russian aggression.

Western aid helped Ukraine weather the initial storm. The training provided by western military personnel to non-commissioned officers played a key role in Ukraine's ability to resist Russian efforts to disrupt Ukrainian military mobilization.

This handout photograph taken and released by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Service on April 9, 2024, shows Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (2ndL) visiting the construction site of a defense line in the Kharkiv region amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
This handout photograph taken and released by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Service on April 9, 2024, shows Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (2ndL) visiting the construction site of a defense line in the Kharkiv region amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In material terms, the weapons provided by the West — anti-tank missiles and javelins — proved decisive in fending off Russian armored spearheads.

Western states, specifically the United States and the United Kingdom, also provided significant moral support to Ukraine in its moment of crisis. U.S. President Joe Biden referred to Russian leader Vladimir Putin as a "war criminal." Boris Johnson, British prime minister at the time, visited Kyiv in April 2022, when many foreign diplomatic missions had fled the country.

This helped rally international opinion against Putin.

Unfortunately, material aid for Ukraine from western countries has not matched the pace of these comments and actions. Furthermore, when aid has been provided, it's been in a reactive manner and is often far behind developments on the ground.

For example, in the fall of 2022, Ukraine executed a brilliant counteroffensive that pushed back Russian forces around Kherson and Kharkiv. Ukraine accomplished this task despite only receiving a partial amount of what they'd requested from their allies.

Rescuers and local residents clear debris following Russian strikes in Zmiiv, Kharkiv region, on Jan. 8, 2024, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Rescuers and local residents clear debris following Russian strikes in Zmiiv, Kharkiv region, on Jan. 8, 2024, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In fact, the only thing that prevented greater success was Ukraine's limited supplies. Western allies would later provide the very equipment that Ukraine requested in 2022 for the 2023 summer counteroffensive, but the moment had passed.

Not the time for recriminations

The Russian army in the summer of 2023 was not the Russian army of 2022. In 2022, Russian armed forces were reeling and overextended. In 2023, however, the Russian army possessed extensive fortifications and had learned from its earlier mistakes. What would have proved decisive in 2022 instead produced, at best, the aforementioned stalemate in 2023.

There were many reasons for the failure of Ukraine's 2023 summer counteroffensive, but chief among them was the piecemeal nature of western aid that inhibited Ukraine's armed forces.

The western material aid allowed Ukraine to launch counteroffensives but it wasn't enough to sustain and, subsequently, entrench these offensives. Admittedly, Ukraine's maximalist goal of retaking all its conquered territory magnified these issues because Ukrainian forces did not properly fortify these areas after their limited gains.

This resulted in Ukrainian forces being left exposed over an extended front without adequate reserves. Russia is now exploiting the situation in areas like Kharkiv.

Inconsistent aid a boon to Russia

Ukraine's government has clearly stated its goals and pursued them even with limited means. The West's support of Ukraine, on the other hand, lacks the same consistency.

Firefighters inspect the interior of a hotel destroyed in a missile attack in Kharkiv, on Jan. 11, 2024, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Firefighters inspect the interior of a hotel destroyed in a missile attack in Kharkiv, on Jan. 11, 2024, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The disconnect between western statements of support for Ukraine and actual material aid has worked to Russia's advantage. There is growing frustration in western countries over the protracted nature of the conflict and the inability of Ukraine to deliver on the West's expectations, which are unrealistic considering how piecemeal western aid has been over the past year.

Most notably, a Russian disinformation campaign exploiting this disconnect appears to be bearing fruit in the U.S., specifically within the Republican Party. Michael McCaul, Republican chairman on the House of Representatives' Foreign Affairs Committee, has publicly acknowledged that fellow Republicans have embraced Russian propaganda. The House of Representatives' Intelligence chair, Mike Turner, has confirmed that Russian propaganda "is being uttered" in the House.

Russia's success in influencing American domestic politics largely accounted for the delay in passing subsequent aid for Ukraine.

Ukraine had counted on that aid for six months, and the delay helped create its current predicament in Kharkiv and other areas. Unlike the Russians, the Ukrainian armed forces have not had the ability to reconstitute or fortify due to the lag.

Long-term aid

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken's visit to Kyiv amid the Russian offensive in Kharkiv illustrates the problems in the current relationship between Ukraine and its allies.

While President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was appreciative of the show of support, he immediately requested that the U.S. provide more air defenses.

The political support provided by the U.S. and Ukraine's other allies is invaluable. But what Ukraine really needs is a long-term aid strategy so that it doesn't suffer from the material shortages it's experienced over the last six months. A long-term aid package, furthermore, would allow Ukraine to properly plan operations for the rest of the year and beyond.

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Words matter, but so do artillery shells and air defenses. Ukraine lost an opportunity to exploit Russian vulnerability in 2022 due to its allies' unwillingness to provide necessary material aid.

Russia is preparing for a long war, and so should those who want Ukraine to succeed. Crucial to that reality is establishing a long-term, and consistent, material aid program.

James Horncastle is an assistant professor in the Department of Global Humanities and holder of the Edward and Emily McWhinney Professorship in International Relations at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: Delays in western aid have put Ukraine in a perilous position