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Approval of the aid brings Ukraine closer to replenishing troops struggling to hold the front lines

Ukrainian soldiers carry grenades to shell Russian frontline positions near the city of Bakhmut, in Ukraine's Donetsk region, on March 25, 2024.  US House approval of a $61 billion package for Ukraine puts the country one step closer to getting an infusion of new firepower.  But the clock is ticking.  Russia is using all its might to make its biggest gains since the invasion by the May 9 deadline.

Ukrainian soldiers carry grenades to shell Russian frontline positions near the city of Bakhmut, in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, on March 25, 2024. US House approval of a $61 billion package for Ukraine puts the country one step closer to getting an infusion of new firepower. But the clock is ticking. Russia is using all its might to make its biggest gains since the invasion by the May 9 deadline. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

Kiev, Ukraine – Ukrainian commander Oleksiy Tarasenko last month witnessed a terrifying shift in Russian efforts to breach Kiev’s defense of the industrial region known as the Donbas.

While opposing Russia’s unyielding advance in the strategic frontline city of Chasiv Yar, he noticed that instead of launching the typical light infantry attacks, Moscow’s forces were taking brutal risks by launching battalion and platoon attacks , sometimes with as many as ten combat units. vehicles.

His men destroyed up to 80 tanks in the weeks that followed, but this did not slow the enemy. The Russian military’s confidence reflected the Kremlin’s knowledge that Ukraine’s ammunition supplies were dwindling, while the US was reluctant to approve more military aid.

The passage Saturday by the U.S. House of Representatives of a long-awaited $61 billion package for Ukraine brings the country one step closer to an infusion of new firepower that will be rushed to the front lines to combat Moscow’s latest attacks. But the clock is ticking and Russia is using all its might to make its biggest gains since its invasion within the May 9 deadline. In the meantime, Kiev has no choice but to wait for replenishment.

Seeing an opportunity, Russia has seized the momentum on the battlefield, forcing Kiev’s forces to cede tactically important territory, one painful yard after another.

Wave after wave of mechanized units came for Tarasenko’s brigade. Protected under an umbrella of attack drones and artillery fire, they reached the foot of Khasiv Yar, the gateway to Ukraine’s defensive backbone in the Donetsk region.

“They concentrated disproportionately huge resources in this direction,” said Tarasenko, deputy commander of the 5th Separate Assault Brigade. “The most difficult thing is to cope with this continuous attack from the enemy, which does not change even if the enemy loses a lot of military equipment and soldiers.”

The Pentagon has said it could move weapons to Ukraine within days if the Senate and President Joe Biden finally approve the aid package. But experts and Ukrainian lawmakers said it could take weeks for aid to reach troops, giving Russia more time to degrade Ukraine’s defenses.

The seven-month effort to pass the package effectively held Ukraine hostage to the internal politics of its biggest ally. It also raised concerns about how the shifting sands of American politics will affect future military support.

European partners cannot match the size and scope of US aid, which remains Kiev’s main hope of winning the war. But that support has come with red lines, including rules banning the use of Western-supplied weapons for attacks within the Russian Federation. Some Ukrainian officials argue that such restrictions hamper their ability to cripple the enemy’s more robust capabilities.

Assuming aid arrives in the next two months, plans are underway for a possible late summer offensive. Analysts have argued that future support should not rely on one big decisive battle, but on a sustained strategy over many years.

But first, Ukraine must hold off Russia’s attempts to break through defense lines and entrenched positions.

Over the past month, The Associated Press spoke to a dozen commanders in the active zones of the eastern front line, from Kupiansk in the northeast to Bakhmut further south. They said their soldiers had rationed grenades and struggled to repel enemy attacks with insufficient artillery ammunition.

They also have a critical shortage of air defense missiles, not only for high-end Patriot systems that protect cities, but also for tactical air systems. That has given Russian fighter-bombers the opportunity to drop thousands of deadly aerial glide bombs at Ukrainian positions, razing defenses to the ground, something the Russian air force has never been able to do before.

Since January, the Kremlin has seized 230 square kilometers of Ukrainian territory, about the size of the US city of Detroit, according to the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.

Ukrainian commanders have complained about serious ammunition shortages since late December. In February, heads of artillery units in several regions said they had less than 10% of the supplies they needed, as Kiev rushed to cut back on shells.

Nowhere are supplies more needed than in Khasiv Yar, where Moscow is determined to capture the city after weeks of fierce fighting. Ukraine’s Commander-in-Chief Oleksandr Syrski said Russia’s top military leadership has ordered its soldiers to take the city before May 9, Russia’s Victory Day, a holiday marking the defeat of Nazi Germany.

To achieve that goal, Russia unleashes daily drone strikes and glide bombs on Ukrainian forces that cannot counterattack.

Time is of the essence, said Yurii Fedorenko, battalion commander of the 92nd Brigade in the Khasiv Yar region.

“They simply destroyed our positions with massive attacks. Now these positions are constantly hit by artillery, making it impossible to recapture them,” he said.

“Now we have nothing left to answer the enemy with,” he added.

Commanding men who have reached extreme levels of burnout, Fedorenko acknowledged that the Russians were making steady progress. At the time of the interview, Russian forces were just 500 meters from the city, he said.

The soldiers who died protecting lost lands could have been spared if U.S. aid had been approved sooner, he said.

“Our losses could have been kept to a minimum, and we would not have lost areas that would have to be recaptured later.”

Russia gained momentum after gaining control of Avdiivka in February. Moscow’s forces immediately sought to consolidate their tactical success and advance further toward larger, strategically important cities – Kostiantynivka, Sloviansk and Druzkhivka – which together form the fortress wall of Ukraine’s main defense of the Donetsk region.

A victory in Khasiv Yar, which had a population of 12,000 before the war, would bring Russia one step closer to breaking that barricade.

“If the Russians succeed in taking Chasiv Yar, they will be only about 5 to 7 kilometers from the southernmost link in that chain,” said George Barros, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. If Russia manages to penetrate the border between Kostiantynivka and Druzhkivka, it could attack the fortress belt, he said.

“Then we get into the area where the Russians may make some really substantial operational gains and erode Ukraine’s ability to defend the rest of Donetsk,” he said.

An injection of new supplies would provide cover for the Ukrainian armed forces and help them push back the enemy. But Russia will continue to have the upper hand, both in manpower and ammunition. The Russian military has the capacity to generate 20,000 to 30,000 new volunteers per month, and has a roughly 6-to-1 advantage in artillery.

So far, this reality has ruled out any potential for a Ukrainian counteroffensive.

Russian fighters “do not feel that they will now lose a crucial armored vehicle unit or soldier unit for which they will no longer have new reinforcements,” Tarasenko said. “They don’t worry about it. That is their advantage.”