Biden visits Ukraine while Russia attacks Vuhledar

President Biden made a surprise visit to Ukraine this week, arriving in Kyiv amid air raid sirens and lockdowns as the city continues to face frequent bombardment from Russian artillery. He traveled in secret, and his journey is the first an American president has taken to a warzone in which the U.S. did not have an active military presence, and so did not control the skies. While it was risky, there is precedent for American presidents going to war zones, including George Bush in 2003. Early Sunday, the president boarded a Boeing 757 with several journalists and a security detail. First, the plane flew to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, the headquarters for the U.S. Air Forces Europe – Air Forces Africa. Ramstein is a crucial part of American and European defense initiatives on the continent, and often used by the United States when transporting or moving important items into Europe. While the FSB and the Russian government were notified through diplomatic channels, the journey was kept under wraps by the United States.

The conflict reached its one year anniversary on Feb. 24. The U.S. has been one of Ukraine’s staunchest allies during its time, pledging and donating huge amounts of stockpiled munitions, including American stockpiles of Soviet technology often used to operate in the middle east. As the war has worsened, with both sides stalling due to weather conditions, the influx of weaponry has been essential to any further combat. Biden’s goal was to reiterate American support for Ukraine and the Ukrainian people, with promises of new arms deals and weaponry. Biden was met with applause and a warm welcome by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who called the visit historic, timely, and brave.

Biden’s visit comes at a key time for Ukraine, with the high use of artillery and shelling putting a drain both on the military materiel as well as production.

Artillery shells, like bullets, warp and disfigure weapons bit by bit as more are used. The M777 Howitzer, which Canada sent to Ukraine, an artillery piece built by BAE systems and utilized by a number of nations — including the U.S. and the U.K. — is rated for 2,500 rounds prior to barrel replacement. Accuracy decreases without a barrel replacement, with repeated wear and tear essentially reducing the power of big guns. The M777 can be upgraded to be accurate within 30 meters, but with excessive use, the weaponry would lose the ability to fire with any meaningful accuracy.

The Russians have currently tied themselves up in two major locations: Bakhmut, a conflict that has been raging for nearly half a year, and now Vuhledar. Much like how Bakhmut stalled out, Vuhledar also faces the possibility of failure, with the reporting on the ground from Oryx, a group which catalogs all visually confirmed losses (losses of tanks, armored cars, etc. for which photographic evidence occurs), stating that the Russians have lost over a hundred vehicles in the advance. The Vuhledar offensive has been disastrous for the Russian army, with entrenched Ukrainian fighters reporting that the Russians are employing tactics reminiscent of the early rush to Kyiv. According to Ukrainian officials, Russia lost a brigade at Vuhledar, with an estimation of just under 5,000 killed, captured, or wounded. On top of that, these losses appear to be part of Russia’s 155th Guard Naval Infantry, an elite unit whose numbers will be difficult to replace. This is a pattern in the Ukraine conflict, as elite, well-trained units take heavy damage, forcing the Russians to rely on units with significantly less combat training.

Following the West’s estimations, Russia isn’t currently capable of breaking through at Vuhledar, or any other point on the front. Wagner Group, a Russian private military company, has currently been forced to recruit directly from prison, with penal levees becoming a large part of the group’s strengths. According to Ukrainian officials, Russia may move to conscript full-time college students in the coming months, which would lead to a new source of Russian manpower, one that would exhaust Russia’s already fleeing intellectual community. While there was fear that the current offensives in Vuhledar and Bakhmut would lead to breakthroughs, the Russian military has failed in making these fears a reality.

As the war continues, Ukraine continues to hold its ground and has been able to rely on advanced weaponry to keep Russians stalled.