A long, bloody summer
Some cautioned it’s too soon for that type of talk.
“We need at least a couple more months to prepare our troops, to train them to properly handle Western weapons,” Haidai said. “Then we will be able, in principle, to go on the offensive, to capture a village here and there, put a battalion there.”
Haidai and several soldiers told POLITICO it is reasonable to think Ukraine might be ready to make a push against Russian forces by mid-summer, following a flood of US and other Western weapons into the country.
But to ensure their success, air defense systems are urgently needed. Russia has increased its use of airpower in recent weeks, launching devastating attacks on Donbas cities, crucial infrastructure beyond the frontline, and military installations — while also sowing terror among the local population caught in the crossfire.
“On the ground, the Russian occupants are not as successful as they hoped, but in the air, they can destroy us,” said Kramatorsk Mayor Oleksandr Honcharenko. His office these days — underscoring the danger posed by airstrikes — is in a basement, behind sandbagged windows meant to keep him and his staff safe.
Kramatorsk was home to some 150,000 people before the war. After enduring shelling and street battles between Ukrainian troops and Russian forces in 2014, it rebounded and became a hive of cultural and community activity, as well as a main administrative center for the Donetsk region.
Today, only 55,000 residents remain, Honcharenko said, and it is used as a strategic military hub. Sitting on a key highway south of its twin city Slovyansk, Kramatorsk has come under attacks from the air since the first moments of Putin’s invasion; four Russian cruise missiles struck the military airport there just before 5 am on Feb. 24. Air raid sirens wail day and night and most residents have fled; much of the traffic coming and going is military vehicles.
“If we could shoot down more of their planes and rockets we will be able to win,” Honcharenko said.
Ukraine actually has had relatively good success in the air and kept Russia from establishing total dominance, as Ukrainian MiG-29 pilot “Juice” told POLITICO. This has allowed Kyiv to move troops and weapons from the West to the eastern front without serious concern for their destruction.
Over the course of a week, POLITICO observed dozens of convoys bringing in weapons by road to the Donbas. Among them were infantry fighting vehicles and battle tanks, Soviet-era multiple-launch rocket systems, including Grad, Smerch and Uragan, as well as Tochka-U short-range ballistic missile systems and an S-300 long-range surface-to- air missile system. Hundreds of soldiers were seen being transported in buses, military trucks, SUVs and armored troop carriers. Dozens of pontoon bridges for river crossings were hauled in.
Ukrainian SU-25 ground attack jets were also seen daily, zipping just above the tree line to strike their Russian targets before circling back.
But along the rough, serpentine roads of the Donbas, evidence of Russia’s destructive reach was everywhere. Thousands of artillery impact craters dot the landscape, giving it a lunar effect. The tail fins of rockets jut out from fields of golden sorghum and green barley, like menacing signposts warning of danger ahead. Plumes of black smoke, evidence of active fighting, rose in every direction.