Ukraine faces race against time to deploy US funding

Ukraine faces tough weeks ahead in its fight to stem Russian battlefield advances despite this weekend’s passage of a long-awaited US funding bill, according to Ukrainian officials, soldiers and military analysts.

The US House of Representatives passed the $60bn military aid package on Saturday night after months of delay that have left Ukraine short of critical weaponry in the face of Russian advances.

American weapons and munitions will start flowing into Ukraine within the coming days if the bill is approved by the US Senate this week, as is widely expected.

“The time between political decisions and actual damage to the enemy on the front lines, between the package’s approval and our warriors’ strengthening, must be as short as possible,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a Sunday evening address.

Western and Ukrainian officials said some of the material assistance, including arms and ammunition, was already packaged in depots in Poland and elsewhere in Europe and ready to be transported.

But the delivery of the US aid is unlikely to dramatically alter Kyiv’s situation on the frontline, according to Ukrainian officials, soldiers and military analysts.

Commander-in-chief Oleksandr Syrsky warned this month that the situation had “significantly worsened” after Russian forces stepped up offensive actions along several points on the 1,000km frontline since capturing the industrial city of Avdiivka in February.

While far-right Republicans in the House prevented a package of military aid being passed in recent months, Russia’s army was able to strengthen its hold on the roughly 20 per cent of Ukrainian territory it occupied and seize the initiative on the battlefield.

Troops on the frontline told the Financial Times during a visit this month that they were barely holding on under relentless Russian attacks to which they were unable to respond in kind.  

“I hope it will turn the page in favour of us in this war,” said First Lieutenant Ivan Skuratovsky of the fresh aid. His unit is operating American artillery systems at the frontline in the eastern Donetsk region, and is short of ammunition.

But the influx of arms, particularly much-needed artillery shells and munitions for air defence systems “will help to slow down the Russian advance, but not stop it”, one senior Ukrainian official told the FT on condition of anonymity to speak frankly about the battlefield situation.

And Ukrainians are under no illusions that the American assistance will see the country through to the end of the war.

“Such a large aid package may be the last this year. Moreover, there is a fairly high probability that all subsequent aid packages for Ukraine will be much smaller in size,” said a former Ukrainian officer who operates the analytical group Frontelligence Insight.

“The aid provided by the US buys us and the European Union time, about one year,” the group’s assessment said.

Rob Lee, a military analyst and senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia Program, said that even with the new American assistance, “Russia will still have an artillery advantage, it just won’t be as great”.

Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Moscow defence think-tank, said the benefit to Ukraine from advanced US weaponry would depend on the quantity of arms supplied.

The US bill only lists financing to buy the weapons, not how much of each system Washington will supply.

“Successful combined operations with fighters and anti-air might significantly cancel out Russia’s mass glide-bombing campaign. If Ukraine doesn’t use the key systems en masse, there won’t be a significant influence on the front lines,” Pukhov said.

Zelenskyy said earlier this month that his troops were now able to fire just one artillery shell for about every 10 fired by their enemy. That gap will now be partially closed but not completely, according to Ukrainian officials.

The US assistance package, which is certain to provide artillery shells, the senior Ukrainian official said, “does not contain a silver bullet”. 

But Andriy Zagorodnyuk, director of the Kyiv-based security think-tank Centre for Defence Strategies and a former defence minister of Ukraine, said he believed the US aid was “a bullet enough” to kill Russia’s momentum.

But this will address only one major challenge facing Ukraine, he admitted. Kyiv faces another big challenge: manpower.

“I think manpower may be the key to how the war unfolds in 2025,” said Lee.

Russia is at present able to mobilise about 30,000 soldiers each month, according to US and Ukrainian estimates, or enough to at least cover its massive battlefield loss.

Ukraine has taken steps to try to alleviate the situation. This month, Zelenskyy signed a law lowering the mobilisation age to 25 from 27, while Ukraine’s parliament passed a new bill on conscription that is aimed at replenishing its exhausted and dwindling forces. The US aid package will buy some time to address the manpower shortage, analysts said.  

The US munitions likely to be delivered in the next days and weeks may also help to defend more effectively Ukraine’s critical infrastructure that has been badly damaged or destroyed by Russian missiles and drones in recent weeks, after Kyiv ran out of interceptors, the official said.

Patriot missiles would help defend from Russia’s long-range air assaults, while man-portable air defence systems, or MANPADS, such as the American Stinger system, could also be sent and would help troops along the frontline where Russian jets have increasingly attacked Ukrainian positions and flattened residential buildings to push forward. 

“It’s fair to ask if this ammunition will arrive in time to help Ukraine hold Chasiv Yar,” Lee said, referring to the strategic eastern town that sits on a hillside just 15km west of Bakhmut, the city captured by Russian forces last May.  

Syrsky said that Russian President Vladimir Putin was likely to have ordered his forces to capture Chasiv Yar before May 9, when Moscow traditionally celebrates the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany.

Ukraine losing Chasiv Yar would allow Russian troops “fire control” over nearby strategic cities and give them a foothold from which they could launch new attacks deeper into Ukraine, Ukrainian commanders said.

Putin has shown no intention of stopping his country’s invasion from marching deeper into Ukraine.

Asked on Sunday how long the war would last and how long Americans should be expected to fund Ukraine’s defence, Zelenskyy admitted that his army “did lose the initiative” in recent months.

“From the moment we get our hands on these weapon systems, well, from that moment, we can talk about the timeline,” he said.  

Christopher Miller and Max Seddon