The forthcoming fall and winter will be critical for Ukraine and, therefore, Europe. If Russia can destroy Ukraine’s air defense, the West will need to reconsider its stand on military intervention.
Ukrainian soldiers during training. Credit: Ukraine’s general staff
While Ukraine is fighting for its right to exist and paying the price in blood, Europe has long realized that Ukraine is protecting European values and principles. There can be no security without an independent and sovereign Ukraine.
As previously argued, the consequences of a potential Russian victory in Ukraine are devastating for the continent.
Russian forces are presently unable to achieve a decisive breakthroughalong the frontline. Despite the lack of military success on land, Russia is, unfortunately, making progress elsewhere. It is, after all, involved in a Hybrid War using both military and non-military means.
The military situation, however, is fluid and might be about to change. The next 6-8 months might prove to be critical.
The impact of the slow and incremental Western defense support has been thoroughly described by many experts during the last 17 months. Four factors, however, will have an increasing impact on the further development of the war.
1. “Short-term pain” for Ukraine’s air power as pilots train on new F-16s
The Russian Air Force is presently conducting 6-7 times more airstrikes along the frontline than its Ukrainian counterpart. Crucially, it can simultaneously deliver long-range missile and UAV strikes across all of Ukraine. Ukrainian combat aircraft play a crucial role in countering this threat.
Ukraine might start operating F-16 in 2024. Acknowledging its capacity to maintain a degree of air control and provide some air support with its Soviet legacy combat aircraft despite facing a superior Air Power, its ability to close the sky will increase dramatically once it starts operating modern, western-made combat aircraft. That’s the good news.
On the downside, qualifying its personnel to fly, maintain and support the F-16 – will probably force the Ukrainian Air Force to temporarily withdraw some of its pilots and technicians from their crucial role of upholding Air Control and supporting the counteroffensive.
While it might take 4-6 months for an experienced fighter pilot to operate an F-16 effectively, it might take 1-2 years to get all pilots and technicians through the training program.
Depending on the ratio between available fighter pilots and combat aircraft, the process of introducing F-16s into the Air Force might temporarily leave Ukraine with a reduced availability of MiG-29 Fulcrum and Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker jets. This will affect Ukraine’s ability to close the sky and support the ground offensive.
The introduction of F-16 into the Ukrainian Air Force will bring long-term relief but short-term pain.
2. Gaps grow in Ukraine’s air defenses as missile stocks dwindle
This happens as the Ukrainian Air Defence is being depleted. Ukraine has lost more than 118 Surface-To-Air Missile Systems since the full-scale war started.
At the end of February, 89% of Ukraine’s air defense systems consisted of Soviet legacy systems like S-300 and Buk, and was already slowly running out of missiles. Fortunately, the West has been able to help replenish some of the missiles from some of the many users of the systems globally.
Ukraine’s ability to maintain air control might gradually be reduced in the next 6-8 months because of dwindling stocks of missiles and reduced availability of Ukrainian combat aircraft. This coincides with a Russian push to increase the production of both long-range cruise missiles and drones.
As stressed in the article “Ukraine’s Need for Fighter Aircraft Has Not Gone Away,” Ukraine is already suffering the consequences of a lack of air defense systems. Ukrainian cities, villages, settlements, and not least, Ukrainian frontline positions remain exposed to daily airstrikes. Ukrainian ports have been subject to multiple missile and drone strikes. The Ukrainian Land Forces are conducting a counteroffensive with scarce protection from Russian combat aircraft and attack helicopters.
In July, Russia conducted more than 1,552 airstrikes against Ukraine. Russia lost no combat aircraft and only three helicopters during the same period.
Modern, western air defense systems will be unable to replace the old methods for years due to the number of systems needed. While more Western Air Defence means are forthcoming, many are still under production and will be delivered next year.
An already struggling Ukrainian Air Defence network might stumble and fall as Ukraine awaits the F-16s.
This might happen as Ukraine prepares for its second winter at full-scale war, less than a year after its energy sector was subject to massive missile and UAV strikes.
According to the UNDP, an alarming 42 out of 94 (45%) vital high-voltage transformers in government-controlled territories have been damaged or destroyed due to missile or drone strikes since 22 February 2022. More than half of these transformers have endured repeated attacks, thwarting attempts at repair. Power generation capacity has been reduced to nearly 50% of its pre-2022 levels. Out of nearly 37 GW of installed capacity, over 19 GW have been destroyed, damaged, or occupied. The situation is aggravated by the significant decline in maneuvering capacities, including the loss of more than 67% of thermal power generation capacity.
The risks must be seen in the context of UAV production facilities being built in both Russia and Belarus, increasing Russia’s future ability to launch waves of UAVs against Ukraine. Ukraine is also experiencing a temporary “lull” in missile strikes compared to April and May. Russia can only produce 60-70 missiles a month and might, therefore, have started rebuilding its missile stocks in preparation for yet another winter season.
3. Western military aid slows to a trickle as Ukraine’s needs mount
The temporary decrease in Ukrainian Air Power happens in conjunction with a reduced inflow of Western weapons and ammunition. According to the Ukraine Support Tracker:
“Despite some larger support packages, the total amount of new bilateral support commitments to Ukraine by other countries has been low in spring 2023 compared to previous periods. Most of the new pledges were military aid. However, despite the Ukrainian offensive, new pledges are not as large as at the beginning of the year, and military equipment deliveries are well below commitments.”
Both the US and Europe failed to mobilize their defense industries when the war started in 2014. The effort to ramp up the production of weapons and ammunition only started last spring. The US defence industrial base requires, however, 18-36 months to get ready for conflicts, which helps explain why the output of 155 mm ammunition has only increased from 15,000 to 30,000 a month, while the required – and only achievable in the long-term – is 70,000. This reflects the overall production problems the West faces 9.5 years into the war.
4. Termination of Black Sea grain deal signals dangerous escalation by Russia
Russia’s termination of the Black Sea Grain Initiative (BSGI) marks an escalation of the war. The termination came as a conclusion of months of Russian sabotage of the agreement.
An analysis by Black Sea News showed that the BSGI was slowly being stopped because the Russian inspectors at the JCC were deliberately slowing inspections. The number of ships arriving at Ukrainian ports in June was only 15.3% from September 2022. At times, nearly 100 shipswere waiting for inspection in the Bosporus. In April, vessels were waiting for an average of over a month.
On 25 July, the Defence Intelligence of Ukraine (DIU) published a classified report for Russia’s top military and political leadership, containing information on the grain deal’s obstruction. According to the report, Russia actively used the JCC to minimize the volume of grain exported under the grain agreement. “High-quality inspection of vessels”, temporary suspension of the agreement (with the consequential follow-on effects), restriction of access of ships to the port of Pivdennyi, reduction of the number of inspection teams, and the stop of registration of grain carriers were some of the tools used to reduce the outflow of Ukrainian grain to the world markets.
DIU’s report was supported by the realities at sea and the findings of the Black Sea News.
While Russia’s “war on food” has a tremendous impact on the more than 345 million people who face high levels of food insecurity in 2023, it has also has a huge impact on both Ukraine and the West.
As previously argued, both Ukraine and the West are exposed to a Hybrid War. Russia is trying to bring about a Ukrainian defeat through the parallel and synchronized use of both military and non-military means. Due to both the direct and indirect consequences of the full-scale war – including (but not limited to) the destruction of critical infrastructure and the industrial and agricultural base, and the maritime embargo – Ukraine is only a “donor conference” away from collapse.
The maritime blockade is:
- undermining Ukraine’s economic viability and, therefore, its sovereignty and independence;
- increasing global famine and global costs of living, both increasing the risk of demonstrations, riots, extremism, and fall of governments;
- if unchallenged, undermining universal Freedom of Navigation worldwide.
It is, therefore, time to refocus attention from the situation on the battlefield on land to the broader strategic situation.
Converging crises threaten to overwhelm Ukraine’s precarious defenses
A reduced inflow of main battle tanks, armored vehicles, artillery, MLRS, and ammunition, combined with a temporary reduction of Air Power and increasing problems in upholding Air Control for lack of Ground Based Air Defence, will have a negative impact on the battlefield.
The fact that this coincides with Russia re-establishing its supremacy in the Black Sea, using food to blackmail the world and block maritime trade to/from Ukraine, further undermines Ukraine and its international partners.
It all happens as the US increasingly focuses on the presidential election, and President Putin sees a glimpse of hope, seeing a potential Republican win as a chance for the United States to withdraw or further reduce its support for Ukraine.
In parallel, the political landscape in Europe is slowly being transformed because of dissatisfied electorates resulting from increased living costs, as well as food and energy insecurity. Europe sees far-right parties of different flavors – nostalgic nationalist, populist nationalist, ultra-conservative with neo-fascist roots, and more – enjoying a notable resurgence. This development will probably serve Russia far more than the EU and NATO.
Equally crucial, all of the above will have a huge impact on the Russian appraisal of the strategic environment.
At a critical juncture, Ukraine requires urgent course correction to survive
Russia’s attempts to occupy Ukraine by military power failed before it even started. This should, however, not be translated into a strategic defeat. Russia is, after all, conducting a hybrid – not a conventional – war. Seen in this context, its outlook is not all bad.
The next six-eight months might change the balance on the battlefield. If Russia can destroy the remaining Ukrainian Air Defense network, the war’s nature will dramatically change.
The West, therefore, urgently needs to reconsider its stand on military intervention.
If Ukrainian Air Defence shows signs of collapsing, a coalition of the willing must be ready to intervene (and do what it should have done 530 days ago).
In the meantime, Ukraine urgently needs more Ground Based Air Defence systems to protect all major cities and ports, as well as support the efforts of the Ukrainian Land Forces.