As Ukraine war enters new phase, can western arms turn the tide?

As the war in Ukraine enters a new phase, Nato countries have been gradually stepping up their supply of weapons to Kyiv. In doing so, western nations are quietly crossing the defensive-only threshold set by leaders at the start of the crisis.

But the question remains whether the gradual escalation in arms deliveries can avoid a Russian retaliation and turn the tide on the battlefield, where Moscow is seeking to wage a more conventional military-on-military war in the eastern Donbas.

“The issue will be how much the west shifts to offensive weaponry,” said Phil Osborn, a former UK chief of defence intelligence, “and the absolute criticality of ensuring that the supply of critical military kit is maintained and increased.”

Ukraine’s military spent the first six weeks of the war trying to pick off invading Russian armoured columns with light infantry using anti-tank bazookas. Poor Russian tactics and Ukrainian determination successfully forced the overstretched attackers to abandon their attacks on Kyiv, and Chernihiv and Sumy in the north-east.

But Ukraine now has to deal with Russian forces in the east and south that have made more defensible gains and are better dug in.

In the past 24 hours it has emerged that the Czech Republic has sent a dozen Soviet designed T-72 tanks, plus howitzer artillery pieces and BMP-1 armoured vehicles, a significant shift in the direction of supplying “offensive weapons” that western politicians had insisted they were not prepared to do.

That by itself is not enough to make more than a dent in the 94 tanks that Ukraine is estimated by researchers at Oryx to have lost in the fighting so far – but there is persistent speculation Poland could spare 100 more, now it has reached a separate agreement on Tuesday to buy 250 US Abrams tanks for $4.75bn.

The UK is considering sending non-lethal armoured vehicles to Ukraine for patrol and reconnaissance work, according to a report in the Times.

The next phase of the war – which could yet be decisive – is expected to unfold in the Donbas in the next month as Russian forces seek to capture Mariupol, create a land bridge to Crimea, expand the area of occupation in the self-proclaimed republics in Donetsk and Luhansk – and perhaps encircle Ukraine’s main fighting force ranged against it.

It is a struggle that will unfold over the course of April. Western intelligence officials believe the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, will want an “announceable success” for the country’s traditional Victory Day parade on 9 May, placing considerable emphasis on what the west is prepared to supply now.

A handful or two of Czech tanks, or the four Bushmaster armoured vehicles sent by Australia, will not make much difference. “If we had already got what we needed – all these planes, tanks, artillery, anti-missile and anti-ship weapons – we could have saved thousands of people,” Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said earlier this week.

The US announced it would send a further $100m of Javelin anti-tank missiles on Wednesday, on top of $300m of equipment on Friday, which includes two new sets of weapons, designed to help Ukrainian forces better attack the Russians.

Friday’s batch included “laser-guided rocket systems” thought by experts to refer to APKWS rockets. These are traditionally mounted on planes – and possibly drones – but can be used on the ground, and could in that instance help counter Russia’s preponderance in heavy artillery, which has caused so many Ukrainian casualties.

A second element of Friday’s package was 10 Switchblade 600 combat drones, which have a range of 90km and can fly for 40 minutes, and carry the same anti-tank warhead as the Javelin anti-tank weapon – a replacement for lost Turkish TB2 drones, giving Ukraine more options on the battlefield.

Nick Reynolds, a land warfare expert at Rusi, said he believed the Switchblade drones were “an urgent requirement” because they could help “strike Russian command nodes, electronic warfare vehicles, logistics hubs, artillery and air defence systems in depth” – reaching deep behind the frontline in Donbas.

The growing supply will certainly help Ukraine fight the second phase of the Russian attack, but it is probably not until the end of April that a clearer picture will emerge of the revised military balance. Without more tanks, in particular, it is not obvious that Ukraine can relieve the besieged Mariupol.

Meanwhile, the west’s aims are becoming less clear. Is the goal to allow Ukraine to force the Kremlin into peace talks – or try to inflict a more heavy defeat that would risk provoking an unpredictable Russian president?

A western official cautioned on Wednesday that it would be “fundamentally different” to try to force Russian forces out of the separatist republics of Donetsk and Luhansk and Crimea because of “the way in which Russia would defend those interests”.