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Foreign Affairs

James Brooke: Massive US military aid headed to Ukraine

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Residents hunker down Thursday in the city subway of Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine. Although the bombings in Kharkiv have decreased and the subway is expected to run beginning of next week, still some residents use it as a temporary bomb shelter.

As Russia bombs Ukraine’s railroad network, Moscow knows what will come down the tracks this summer: $54 billion in U.S. aid to Ukraine. Approved by the U.S. Senate on Thursday, this aid is 200 times larger than last year’s aid of $275 million.

On May 9, Russian President Putin celebrated VE Day in Moscow. In Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden was signing the Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act, a modern version of the military aid program that helped the Soviets to beat the Nazis in 1945.

For one country alone, the new Ukraine aid package is larger than any overall U.S. foreign aid package given over the last two decades. It is more than the $47 billion in U.S. foreign aid given to all countries in 2019. Reflecting bipartisan congressional support, Idaho Republican Jim Risch told Bloomberg: “Ronald Reagan spent eight years bringing down the Soviet Union and freeing the countries in its orbit. We are all in.”

The news is percolating into Russia, a tightly controlled information space where the press has bathed in happy talk since the Kremlin attacked Ukraine three months ago.

“We are in total political isolation and the whole world is against us, even if we don’t want to admit it,” Mikhail Khodaryonok, a military analyst and retired Russian Army colonel, told a shocked audience on “60 Minutes,” the flagship talk show on Rossiya-1 state TV. “There is a coalition of 42 countries and ... our resources, military-political and military-technical, are limited.”

With the new Western aid, he warned: “Ukrainian people are able to arm one million people and the reality of one million armed Ukrainians is coming.” In contrast to Russian soldiers, he told the Russian audience: “[Ukrainians’] desire to defend their motherland very much exists. Ultimate victory on the battlefield is determined by the high morale of troops who are spilling blood for the ideas they are ready to fight for.”

While Ukraine turns away volunteers for lack of guns, Russia copes with attacks on its military recruiting stations.

Reflecting low morale in the field, Russian tank crews have abandoned 230 fully functional tanks. In a distant echo of World War II, there are reports of Russian units refusing to fight — and of Chechen enforcers instructed to shoot soldiers who retreat.

To minimize body bags coming home to the politically crucial cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg, the Kremlin is using a disproportionate number of soldiers from non-Russian, peripheral regions — Buryatia, Chechnya, North Ossettia and Tuva. One Ukrainian villager recently freed from Russian occupation told reporters that one Russian soldier said he had only seen paved roads on TV. With Russian logistics failing, soldiers loot Ukrainian supermarkets for food and, on occasion, have shot dogs for dinner.

Slowly, big city Russians are realizing that their government is throwing its soldiers into what U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin calls a Ukrainian “wood chipper.”

In 10 weeks, Russian combat deaths in Ukraine topped the 14,500 soldiers the Soviet Union lost in Afghanistan during the 1980s. If current attrition rates hold up, by the end of this summer, Russia will have lost more soldiers in Ukraine in six months than the U.S. lost in Vietnam in a decade from 1963 to 1973.

This spring, Ukraine defeated Russia’s first two offensives: to take Kyiv, the capital; and then to take Kharkiv, the nation’s second largest city. This week’s negotiated surrender of almost 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers from the massive Azovstal steel plant is a morale booster for Russia. But the fact remains that the offensive in southeast Ukraine has stalled. And no outside aid is coming to Russia.

Despite a “partnership without limits” loudly announced by Russia and China the week before the war started, China has been quiet as a church mouse. In face of the devastating U.S.-United Kingdom-European Union trade sanctions, China does not want to risk facing such economic ire.

Earlier this week, Putin hosted in Moscow the meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a group designed to be a successor assembly for the 15 former Soviet republics. Only five leaders showed up. In their public remarks, four made no mention of Ukraine. Only Aleksandr Lukashenko, the self-proclaimed president of Belarus, urged a united front with Russia. But Lukashenko has been only shadow boxing with Ukraine, putting his troops on alert in border regions, refusing to allow them to cross the border.

Alone against the world may be where Putin feels comfortable. Over the last five years, he has unveiled two statues to Alexander III, his favorite czar. Each comes with a saying from the late-19th-century czar: “Russia has only two allies: the Army and the Navy.”

But Putin’s war of choice has exposed to the world the shortcomings of his “modernized” army.

“The war has exposed the Russian military as a Potemkin Army — poorly armed, poorly trained, poorly supplied and with low morale,” Timothy Ash, a London-based securities analyst, wrote this week. “Not only has the Russian military suffered colossal losses in military equipment and manpower, but its very image is now in tatters. It was beaten by a much smaller and on paper less capable military force.”

And Russia’s Navy may come increasingly into the gun sights of Ukraine’s Western-armed military.

Until February, Ukraine was a world food power, exporting rivers of corn, wheat and cooking oil to help feed hundreds of millions of people. With Russia’s Navy blockading all of Ukraine’s sea ports, David Beasley, head of the UN World Food Program, warned last week: “Millions of people around the world will die because these ports are being blocked.”

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres is attempting to negotiate with Moscow a partial relaxation of the blockade to restart Ukrainian grain exports. Conceivably, NATO’s Black Sea nations — Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania — could enforce a humanitarian navigation corridor to allow foreign freighters to service Ukrainian ports. Russia may only accept this in return for reduced sanctions — or after heavy military attacks on its Black Sea Fleet.

Meanwhile, Russia is trying to disable Ukraine’s railway system, a farflung network of 14,300 miles of track. In a normal year, Ukrainian Railways carries as much freight as all of the EU railroads combined.

Looking at the avalanche of U.S. aid coming down these tracks this summer, Khodaryonok, the Russian military analyst, warned his TV viewers: “The situation, frankly speaking, will get worse for us.”

James Brooke, of Lenox, is a visiting fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He has traveled to about 100 countries reporting for The New York Times, Bloomberg and Voice of America.

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