Ukraine needs 60 multiple rocket launchers – many more than the handful promised so far by the UK and US – to have a chance of defeating Russia, according to an aide to the country’s presidency.
Oleksiy Arestovych, a military adviser to the president’s chief of staff, told the Guardian that while he believed the rocket launchers were “a gamechanger weapon”, not enough had been committed to turn the tide in the war.
“The fewer we get, the worse our situation will be. Our troops will continue to die and we will continue to lose ground,” Arestovych said, particularly if countries with dozens of systems only “decide to donate four or five”.
On Monday Britain said it would donate a handful of M270 tracked rocket launchers, carrying missiles with a range of about 50 miles, a few days after the US said it would donate four similar truck-based high mobility artillery rocket systems (Himars).
Arestovych said Ukraine needed many times more multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS), which have a range far greater than anything in the country’s existing arsenal.
“If we get 60 of these systems then the Russians will lose all ability to advance anywhere, they will be stopped dead in their tracks. If we get 40 they will advance, albeit very slowly with heavy casualties; with 20 they will continue to advance with higher casualties than now,” he said.
The US army has 363 Himars and 225 M270 rocket launchers, and the US Marines have a further 47, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, while the UK has 35 of its version of the M270s – indicating there could be capacity to supply more to Ukraine.
Russia has repeatedly said it will intensify its offensive in Ukraine if the longer-range rockets are delivered. Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said on Monday: “The longer the range of weapons you supply, the farther away the line from where neo-Nazis [the Ukrainians] could threaten the Russian Federation will be pushed.”
On Sunday Vladimir Putin said Moscow would strike “fresh targets” in Ukraine if the west stepped up its weapons deliveries. Early on Sunday morning Russia launched a cruise missile strike on a railway depot in an eastern suburb of Kyiv, the first time the capital had been struck in more than five weeks.
The latest public lobbying from Ukraine came as a battle for control raged in the small eastern city of Sievierodonetsk, with Kyiv’s forces trying to mount a counterattack after Russia nearly succeeded in capturing it at the end of last week.
Serhiy Haidai, the governor of Luhansk, where the city is situated, said on Monday morning that “the situation has worsened a little for us”, having reached a point where Ukrainian forces had “liberated almost half of the city”.
Later on Monday Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, struck a more pessimistic note, telling journalists in Kyiv that while his country’s forces were holding out, “there are more of them [Russians] and they are stronger”. Ukraine’s military losses have been estimated by insiders at 150 deaths a day and 800 wounded.
Haidai said shelling had increased tenfold in Sievierodonetsk and neighbouring Lysychansk, still held by Ukraine, and there were other reports of intense fighting involving machine gun, mortar and artillery fire and thousands of troops.
Overnight it emerged that Zelenskiy had visited nearby frontlines on Sunday to raise soldiers’ morale. The president revealed he had taken a risky trip to Lysychansk and nearby Soledar that at one point took him a couple of kilometres from Russian positions.
“We also brought you something from them,” Zelenskiy added in a selfie video released in the small hours. “It is important. We brought confidence. And strength. I wish them health. Low bow to their parents. I wish victory to all of us.”
Arestovych said Zelenskiy had wanted to “display support for the troops” because the fighting in the Donbas area was “pretty hard for us”. The president also wanted to repel “Russian disinformation” that he “sits in his bunker in Kyiv and couldn’t care less about the frontline”.
Ukrainian strategists said they had tried to lure Russian forces into overextending themselves in Sievierodonetsk, in the hope of blunting the operational effectiveness of the invading force. Although 120 Russian battalions remain inside Ukraine, Kyiv believes they are operating at 40% or 50% strength at present.
Russia, however, has been making slow but steady progress in the Donbas region, advancing at a rate of about 500 metres to 1km a day in recent weeks, largely by concentrating its efforts on an increasingly small portion of the frontline: in the area around Sievierodonetsk, where there is a bulge in Ukraine’s positions.
Arestovych said Ukraine’s principal problem was that while it was able to inflict casualties on the Russians and blunt their advances in the Donbas and across a 800-mile (1,300km) frontline, it was far more difficult to push back the occupiers. Militaries typically need to secure a 3:1 battlefield advantage or more to have a prospect of victory.
“We need four to five brigades of heavy weaponry to be able to conduct a proper counter-offensive and to make it successful. We have the manpower, we don’t have the armaments,” Arestovych said. “To be on an offensive is about five times harder than being on the defensive.”
The adviser said his greatest fear was that the west would stop sending weapons to Ukraine, “because that will be going back to the original situation prior to the war, of long and static frontlines, this time three times more of our land having been captured than before”.
Elsewhere, Russia’s defence ministry said its forces had killed more than 450 “nationalists” in Horlivka and Kodema, north of Donetsk, and destroyed parts of an armoured vehicle repair facility in the Kharkiv region. There was no word on the reported deaths from the Ukrainian side.
In Russia, the governor of the Kursk region, Roman Starovoit, said the village of Tyotkino, near the border with Ukraine, had come under fire from the Ukrainian side that had targeted a bridge and some businesses on Monday morning.