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Fiery Stalemate Threatens to Destroy East Ukraine as US Weapons Pour In

The war of attrition threatens to drag on for months or years amid debate over a massive influx of U.S. weapons.

A young boy sits in front of a war-damaged building in Kramatorsk in Donbas in the eastern region of Ukraine, on May 25, 2022.

Part of the Series

In a recent television interview, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said “victory will be bloody,” but Ukraine will not allow Russia to control Ukrainian cities and territories seized in its brutal invasion of his country. Zelenskyy told the U.S.-based outlet Axios on Monday that Ukraine must “hold the line” or NATO countries, such as Latvia and Estonia, will be Russia’s next targets, which could force the United States to deploy troops in Eastern Europe under NATO’s collective defense rules.

Zelenskyy is using the threat of U.S. soldiers dying overseas to keep Americans’ attention and shore up U.S. support for the long haul. After stunning success on the battlefield against a much larger enemy, Ukraine is now committed to pushing Russia off every inch of disputed territory, including the destroyed city of Mariupol now under Russian control, and the eastern Donbas region where Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists have fought since 2014. Critics on the left and right warned the Biden administration that U.S. involvement risks conflict with Russia, but according to Zelenskyy, a wider war is more likely if the steady stream of U.S. weapons and military aid to Ukraine dries up.

“We have no way out of this situation,” Zelenskyy added.

Meanwhile, some on the Ukrainian left, including the Ukrainian Pacifist Movement, say the arms transfers from the U.S. simply escalate the conflict and draw both sides further away from negotiating a ceasefire.

The horrifying war of attrition threatens to drag on for months or years as fighting in Ukraine’s south and east rages and Russia bombards towns and cities to make way for more attacks. The United States is pumping weapons and military aid into Ukraine at unprecedented levels, raising a sharp debate about whether the U.S. is defending a war-torn ally or pushing Ukrainians to become cannon fodder for a complex and dangerous proxy war with Russia.

Biden administration officials have said the U.S. wants Ukraine to “win” the war and weaken the Russian military, a longstanding goal of the U.S.-led NATO alliance. Meanwhile, the conflict has divided left-leaning circles across Europe and the U.S. as leftists within the Ukrainian resistance join Zelenskyy in clamoring for shipments of arms to fight an authoritarian invader.

“The lack of weapons will not stop the war, but will only lead to more civilian casualties, kidnappings and torture in the occupied territories, a humanitarian catastrophe, and more waves of refugees,” reads a recent statement posted on Telegram by Operation Solidarity, a group of leftist and anti-authoritarian civil volunteers who bring aid to battered Ukrainian cities.

In contrast, Ukrainian pacifists are protesting Ukraine’s mandatory military mobilization under martial law while calling on both sides to declare a ceasefire and restart negotiations before more lives are lost. United Nations Secretary General António Guterres, Pope Francis, international antiwar coalitions, and leaders of countries across the world have also urged Ukraine and Russia to call a ceasefire and resume peace talks that stalled weeks ago.

“In my view, U.S. taxpayers should know about weapons supplies to Ukraine, that indeed it escalates the Russia-Ukraine armed conflict, it increases risk of direct confrontation between two nuclear superpowers, U.S. and Russia, and it has bad impact on economy and ecology of United States as well as global negative impact,” said Yurii Sheliazhenko, executive secretary of the Ukrainian Pacifist Movement, in an email.

Zelenskyy also says that the war will “certainly” end in diplomacy. However, it’s been increasingly difficult to arrange a meeting with Putin, especially after Russian forces committed atrocities against civilians in Bucha, Irpin, Mariupol, and other cities. Now that the Ukrainian resistance has embarrassed a much stronger Russian military, recent statements indicate that Zelenskyy seems to be aiming for a bloody “victory” followed by diplomacy, rather than a quick ceasefire and negotiated settlement.

Such an agreement would end the violence but likely concede slices of Ukrainian territory near the eastern border. Russia already invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 without much of a fight. Desperate for a concession to justify the war, Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to control the Donbas region and a land bridge to Crimea that would create a security buffer zone between an increasingly isolated Moscow and NATO-allied countries in Europe.

Billions of Dollars’ Worth of U.S. Weapons Since 2014

U.S. military spending on Ukraine is already well over the aid amounts sent to Israel, Afghanistan and Egypt. The U.S. dispatched more than $3.9 billion worth of U.S. weapons to Ukraine before Congress approved a $40 billion aid package signed by President Biden this week, which includes at least $6 billion in military assistance and $9 billion to replenish U.S. weapons stockpiles after transfers to Ukraine.

The U.S. is the world’s top arms dealer, and weapons sales and transfers are central to U.S. foreign policy across the world.

U.S. weapons transfers to Ukraine are not a brand-new phenomenon. Zelenskyy was pleading for more U.S. weapons long before Putin invaded his country in February. Ukraine has fought a simmering civil war with separatists and the Russian military in the Donbas region since 2014, when the U.S. began funneling what would amount to $6.6 billion in security assistance to the country over the course of the last eight years, according to the State Department. The war followed a political uprising that ousted a pro-Russian president and pitted the U.S. and Russia against each other in a diplomatic proxy fight.

In an infamous call with former President Donald Trump in 2019, Zelenskyy asked for more Javelin missile systems — the same anti-tank weapons that have successfully thwarted Russian invaders. Trump agreed, but the former president said Zelenskyy must “do us a favor” first. That favor, of course, was digging up dirt on Joe Biden, the Democrat Trump expected to run against for reelection. A whistleblower complaint led to the second unsuccessful effort to impeach Trump from office.

Now, U.S.-made Howitzers and artillery rounds, laser-guided rocket systems, battle drones, Stinger and Javelin missile systems and an assortment of smaller arms have all made it to the front lines in Ukraine. The illicit arms trade in Ukraine has ballooned since the civil war began in 2014, raising fears about loose weapons powerful enough to destroy buildings and down commercial airplanes, according to the Washington Post. The war is a boon for U.S. arms manufacturers, who collectively spend billions of dollars lobbying Congress.

Sheliazhenko said the war is taking a toll on the Ukrainian people that is rarely discussed in the Western media. Men ages 18-60 are not allowed the leave the country, forcing fleeing families to split up at the border. There are no legal exceptions that would allow pacifists who refuse military service on principle to flee abroad, according to a letter Sheliazhenko received from state officials. Recently, a transgender woman reported being strip searched and denied entry to Poland after Ukrainian border guards decided she was a man.

Sheliazhenko points to an official petition with more 27,000 signatures demanding Zelenskyy end the mandatory military mobilization. Wealthy men are able to bribe their way out of the country, and even as volunteers wait in long lines at military enlistment offices, recruiters “hunt down men … near shopping malls” and summon them to war.

“For what purpose? Only bribes — logic does not suggest anything else,” reads the petition, which urges Zelenskyy to open the border for all Ukrainians, prioritize volunteer conscripts and crack down on corruption.

Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces, which train civilians to defend against Russia, are blurring the line between civilian and combatant. Russian forces have hunted down, tortured and executed men suspected of arming themselves against the invasion. Yet, many Ukrainians are still eager to resist Putin’s invasion. A member of a Territorial Defense unit near Kyiv, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said fighters returning from the front lines reported a morale boost after receiving U.S. weapons and were eager to show others how to use them.

“Weapons Are Only About Death”

Operation Solidarity volunteers recently delivered food to beleaguered residents of Chernihiv, the northeastern Ukrainian city besieged by Russian forces in the early days of the war. The Russian army destroyed over 1,000 homes as well as critical civilian infrastructure in Chernihiv, according to the group’s posts on Telegram. In a previous post, Operation Solidarity appealed to leftists across Europe to support their government’s efforts to arm Ukraine with weapons and protective equipment. The group said many people in Europe, especially in antiwar movements, will condemn Putin’s aggression, but are not prepared to supply the Ukrainian resistance due to concerns over “militarism.” The group posted this statement:

Without a doubt, war leads to an increase in military budgets, arms supplies are not always controlled, and, in general, weapons are always about death. It’s hard to disagree with this. But it is important to clarify that it wasn’t the Ukrainian people who chose this path. Weapons and military equipment are needed only to protect ourselves from the authoritarian regime which today razes cities to the ground and kills their inhabitants.

Operation Solidarity said the war demonstrates that the world needs a new antiwar movement pushing all countries to give up offensive and nuclear weapons, not just smaller countries such as Ukraine, which agreed to remove Soviet-era nukes from its territory in 1992. In the group’s view, a Russian victory would signal to other belligerent countries that nuclear weapons and a larger military are enough to invade a weaker neighbor with impunity, which could spark a global arms race.

“The presence of an aggressor state, one that has achieved its goals through military means, will lead to an even more significant expansion of military budgets, an increased concentration of weapons at the borders of Russia and Europe, and a constant threat of world destruction in a nuclear war,” the group said. “This cannot be acceptable for any anti-war movement.”

However, the U.S. and Russia have arguably been engaged in an arms race in Ukraine since at least 2014. Putin’s invasion finally tipped the scales, and the U.S. responded with massive shipments of weapons and other supplies. As Zelenskyy tours the world via videoconference asking for support, Ukraine’s armed forces are using these weapons to push back against Russian troops, whose failure to overrun the capital city of Kyiv inspired the West to bet on a Ukrainian victory.

Meanwhile, the battle for the Donbas region is raging, and the scars left in its wake will take generations to heal.

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