Ukraine awaits brutal winter with world attention focused on Middle East

WITH the world's attention fixed on the Middle East, officials in Ukraine say they are facing a new threat: crude Russian drones that appear to be launched with the sole intention of exhausting Ukrainian rockets fired to shoot them down.

According to Ukrainian national television, the small drones carry reflectors to ensure they are detected, sometimes taking pictures to identify the sites of anti-aircraft radars and missile systems.

Built from cheap components readily available online, each drone is estimated to cost around US$1,500, less than each of the sometimes multiple rockets fired to bring them down.

Russian television pundits have reacted to the unexpected Oct 7 Hamas assault against Israel with barely concealed glee, predicting conflict in the Middle East will dramatically reduce Western support for Kyiv.

Many Ukrainian commentators offer the same analysis, worrying in particular that outrage at mounting Palestinian casualties in Gaza and at the Hamas attacks will devastate already fragile support for Ukraine and divert military aid the Kyiv government badly needs.

Earlier this month, Russia announced its defence spending for 2024 would be almost US$110 billion, three times the level before its February 2022 invasion of Ukraine and almost 30 per cent of government spending.

Ukraine intends to spend around US$40 billion on defence next year, roughly half the government budget and 20 per cent of the country's entire economic output — but it is also counting on tens of billions more in foreign military aid, as long as Western donors are still willing to provide it.

When it comes to air defence rockets and artillery shells, Kyiv is now competing directly with Israel for Western supplies, especially from the United States.

In recent weeks, Russian and Ukrainian forces have been on the offensive ahead of deteriorating weather likely to limit movement.

Russian forces foiled several attempts by Ukrainian units to cross the Dnipro River, Russia's Defence Ministry said last Sunday.

On Monday, the Kyiv Post reported an appeal by Robert Brovdi, commander of a Ukrainian drone unit supported through crowdfunding, for Zodiac-type dinghies to support the offensive.

By Tuesday, he said he had raised almost US$1 million, roughly a third of the amount he said was needed to deliver up to 100 craft.

Further east in the Donbas, Russian forces have been making their own assault against heavily fortified Ukrainian strongholds around Avdiivka, among the last significant settlements in the region not under the control of Russian-speaking separatists.

Ukraine will need every air defence missile it can get throughout the winter — hence Russia's willingness to sacrifice its most basic drones.

A growing shortage of artillery shells is if anything more serious, with frontline reports suggesting Ukrainian troops are struggling to get enough ammunition to use roughly 350 donated Western-calibre artillery pieces.

The US and European Union have each pledged to send Ukraine roughly a million 155-mm shells, with the US donation in part coming from strategic stocks the Pentagon keeps in Israel.

On Monday, a senior Pentagon official confirmed some of those were being reallocated back to Israeli forces. Whether the Pentagon will find replacement stocks for Ukraine is unclear.

Russia is believed to be lobbying for its own foreign arms supplies, including from China and North Korea.

While the former appears to have limited its support to weapons components such as chips, a meeting between Putin and North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-un last month appears to have seen the Pyongyang government opening its arsenals.

Since August, two cargo ships have been sailing repeatedly between North Korean ports and Dunay in Russia, unloading at least 1,000 sea containers that were then shipped by rail to armaments bunkers at Tikhoretsk in the Caucasus. The shipments were revealed last week in private satellite footage published by the London-based Royal United Services Institute.

Estonian officials believed the North Korean shipment might total around 350,000 shells, roughly the amount Russia fires each month.

Coupled with Russia's remaining stockpile estimated by Estonia at around four million shells, that would allow Russia to maintain its current rate of fire throughout 2024, potentially outgunning Ukraine.

By early 2025, the Kremlin may hope Donald Trump will be back in the White House, making good on his pre-election promises to halt support for Ukraine and make Kyiv sue for peace.

The writer is from Reuters

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