The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Looming ground battle is crucial phase in Ukraine, U.S. officials say

West speeding weapons to prepare Kyiv for long-distance conflict in the eastern part of the country

Ukrainian soldiers stand by their self-propelled artillery vehicle outside Chernihiv, Ukraine, on April 5. (Marko Djurica/Reuters)

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — U.S. military officials assess that a crucial, and perhaps decisive, phase of the Ukraine war is shaping up in the eastern part of the country, where Russian troops may surround Ukrainian forces in hopes of pummeling them in an epic, long-distance ground battle reminiscent of the last century.

New U.S. shipments of heavy artillery and counter-artillery radar, tactical drones, armored vehicles and other equipment are being rushed to Ukraine before tens of thousands of troops, amounting to up to half of the Ukrainian army, are caught in what is known as a “double envelopment” maneuver that would bring them under simultaneous attack from two sides.

The Ukrainians are located in a north-south crescent between deep Russian lines in the southeastern Donbas region, and a potential pincer movement to their west.

Russian success in the southern port city of Mariupol, where its forces have been battling Ukrainian resistance for weeks, would free up thousands of Moscow’s troops to head north and potentially meet up with additional Russian forces heading south from the area around Kharkiv, in the country’s northeast.

“I think it’s accurate that the next several weeks will be very, very critical … for the outcome of this battle that’s shaping up,” said Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley, who met here Monday with U.S. European commanders.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said April 25 that Ukraine can win the war against Russia if it is equipped correctly and has the right support. (Video: Reuters)

In Mariupol, echoes of history, utter devastation and a last stand

It is anticipated that the battle will be fought at a distance. The Russians are using less armor than previously, without the blitzes that characterized some of their earlier forays into Ukraine, and returning to their more traditional doctrine of using artillery and other long-range fire.

Their front line in Donbas is heavily fortified with surface-to-air missiles that, from a Western perspective, underscore the belief that supplying the Ukrainians with more crewed, fixed-wing aircraft — despite their appeals for planes — would not enhance their prospects.

Where the front line of Russian forces ends up after what is expected to be a grueling battle lasting weeks, if not months, will go a long way to determining the West’s future force posture in Europe. If the Ukrainians cannot hold their positions — let alone push the Russians back — there would be little to stop Russian forces from again turning all of their attention to the central parts of the country and perhaps beyond.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, having initially indicated he planned to control most or all of Ukraine, has reformulated his public objective to claiming the east. But Western officials remain uncertain of his ultimate goal or any time limit he has set for it.

Hubris and isolation led Vladimir Putin to misjudge Ukraine

On Tuesday, Milley will attend a gathering of military leaders from more than 40 NATO and non-NATO countries, hosted by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at the Ramstein base, to discuss what Pentagon spokesman John Kirby called “both the current and future defense needs of Ukraine.”

As they assess the looming battle, several of the U.S. military officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the Defense Department, offered assessments of the contrasting strengths of the opposing forces.

“Weight is on the Russian side,” one official said, with a “willingness to throw solders and units into the fight. They have the numbers. What the Ukrainians have is a very adaptive command style, adaptive tactics,” with small-unit field commanders given far more decision-making authority, “high morale and local knowledge.”

The Ukrainians, the official said, “definitely stand a fighting chance.”

But that chance is largely seen as dependent on having the weaponry they need to fight the kind of long-distance battle they will face, and whether it can reach them in time. One of the subjects of discussion in the Tuesday meeting here is expected to be how to avoid traffic jams as the tempo and bulk of shipments increase, although it is the Ukrainians — who will also attend — determining the mode and routes of travel once inside the country.

The $800 million package of armaments announced by the Biden administration last week includes 72 155mm howitzers, whose range, under certain circumstances, is triple that of the Soviet-era 152mm artillery currently in the Ukrainian arsenal. Trained artillery operators have been brought out of Ukraine in recent weeks to learn how to use the more advanced weapons, in classes reduced from the normal two weeks to an average of six days, U.S. military officials said.

The howitzers come with trucks to tow them and 144,000 artillery rounds. The package also includes 10 AN/TPQ-36 counter-artillery radars, which have the ability to detect and track incoming artillery and rocket fire to counterattack it at its point of origin.

The United States is also sending at least 121 Phoenix Ghost tactical unmanned aerial systems, armed drones that have both reconnaissance and attack capabilities. The newly developed aircraft also carry a greater weapons payload, and can fly farther, than the additional Switchblade drone attack systems that are also in the package.

While far larger, the Russian force the Ukrainians will face is seen as demoralized and depleted after its failed attempt at a quick victory following the Feb. 24 invasion. One question is what the Russians have learned from their poor showing in other parts of Ukraine, where an overestimation of their preparedness and skills, and an underestimation of Ukrainian adaptability and perseverance, scuttled their plans for a quick takeover of Kyiv, the capital.

Russian units that withdrew several weeks ago from around Kyiv and other areas were “in worse shape than the United States expected,” the military official said, and “left a trail of equipment” that was either destroyed or inoperative and traveled through Belarus into Russia. Many were quickly redeployed into Donbas.

“The Russians are reconstituting with poorly maintained and not-modernized equipment,” the official said. “Some tanks have a driver and no crew,” and a number of units are believed to be undermanned, some down to 70 percent strength. Western military doctrine generally holds that a unit down by 10 percent is in bad shape, while one depleted by 30 percent is no longer considered effective in combat.

Despite the number of long-distance weapons they have fired, the Russians’ targeting has been less than optimal. “We are shocked when we miss something,” a second U.S. military official said. The Russians “are not shocked.”

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russia fired at least 85 missiles on at least six major cities in Ukraine on November 15, in one of the most widespread attacks of the war so far. The strikes came just hours after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, speaking by video link, presented a 10-point peace plan to G-20 leaders at a summit in Indonesia. As in previous Russian missile attacks, critical civilian infrastructure appeared to be primary targets. Parts of several cities that were hit were left without electrical power on Tuesday afternoon.

Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

Read our full coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war. Are you on Telegram? Subscribe to our channel for updates and exclusive video.