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What Ukraine Still Needs to Win

May 11, 2023
What Ukraine Still Needs to Win
Patriot surface-to-air missile systems are seen at Warsaw Babice Airport in the Bemowo district of Warsaw, Poland on 06 February, 2023. Patriot missile systems purchased by Poland from the US last year have been redeployed to the Polish captial for military exercises as the war in neighbouring Ukraine enters its second year. (Photo by Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

As Kyiv gears up for its spring counteroffensive, some U.S. officials are privately casting doubt on what Ukraine can achieve. To be sure, the Ukrainian military will face serious hurdles in overcoming well-entrenched Russian forces. But policymakers must not just admire the problem—they should do everything they can to help Ukraine defeat it. After all, Ukraine’s battlefield prospects depend to a great extent on how much support it receives from the West.

Washington can still do more to fulfill President Biden’s promise to “help Ukraine defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity.” Specifically, the United States and its allies should help Kyiv fill its need for more armored fighting vehicles, air defense, long-range precision strike capabilities, and artillery ammunition.

Media reports and other open-source evidence indicate that since late last year, Kyiv has sought to stand up or fill out at least 18 maneuver brigades. These brigades comprise several thousand soldiers apiece, largely equipped using Western-donated vehicles. Ukraine is also expanding existing units to form nine National Guard assault brigades, at least some of which contain mechanized units.

Washington and its allies have donated hundreds of infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), armored personnel carriers (APCs), and tanks to help Kyiv equip some of these new brigades. But Ukraine still has only a fraction of what it needs. According to Ukrainian military protocol, Kyiv needs over 2,000 IFVs and APCs and more than 700 tanks to equip its three army corps fully. Although that’s admittedly a tall order, the West has failed to meet even Ukraine’s more modest request for 600-700 IFVs and 300 tanks. Open-source evidence indicates that since October, Washington and its allies have delivered only around 200 IFVs, 400 APCs, and 200 or so tanks, plus a modest number of French assault vehicles.

Most of all, Kyiv needs more IFVs. These vehicles are key for supporting tanks and dismounted infantry in combined-arms operations, which the Ukrainian military will have to execute to retake large swathes of territory. In many cases, Ukrainian mechanized infantry units have to rely on Western-donated Humvees or mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles (MRAPs) in place of IFVs, sacrificing protection and firepower. If not properly equipped, Kyiv’s forces will suffer higher casualties even if their counteroffensive ultimately succeeds, as one former Ukrainian commander recently noted. The United States and its allies should help fill this gap.

Ukraine is running dangerously low on interceptors for its Soviet-made surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems, most importantly for its long-range S-300s and medium-range Buk-M1s. Because Russia has failed to destroy most of these systems, Ukraine has managed to hold the Russian Air Force at bay and blunt the impact of Moscow’s missile and drone strikes. But if Ukraine can’t replenish or replace its Soviet-made air defenses, that could change—with potentially major impacts on the war.

Unfortunately, Ukraine doesn’t produce S-300 or Buk-M1 interceptors. Few nations are both willing and able to provide Ukraine with their own Soviet-made air defense systems or interceptors. And years of underinvestment in ground-based air defense have left Washington and its allies unable to replace these systems with Western alternatives in a timely manner.

But while a medium-term air defense vulnerability may be inevitable to some degree, the West can do more to mitigate it. To start, Washington should continue pressing friendly countries that possess Soviet-made SAM systems to donate them to Ukraine. Greece and Bulgaria both operate variants of the S-300 but have thus far refused to relinquish them. Nations unwilling to part with entire systems could perhaps at least send some interceptors that are compatible or can be integrated with Ukraine’s existing systems. If they haven’t already, the Western allies could also try to help Kyiv refurbish any old Soviet-made interceptors it has in storage.

Ukraine’s supporters should also strive to ensure it has enough interceptors for the few Western-made SAM systems it’s received in recent months, such as the NASAMS medium-range air defense system. To provide Kyiv with additional NASAMS batteries, Washington could offer to backfill immediate allied donations using the six batteries Raytheon is currently building for Ukraine. The West could also expand deliveries of Hawk medium-range SAM systems. While outdated, these systems could at least complicate operations by Russian aircraft.

Meanwhile, Washington and its allies should begin working now to meet Ukraine’s air defense needs over the longer term. In addition to laying the groundwork to provide Kyiv with Western fighter jets such as the F-16, the West, working with Ukrainian industry, should explore launching production of Soviet-made interceptors in a NATO country.

Ukraine needs better long-range strike capabilities. In addition to helping Ukraine mass produce cheap long-range “suicide drones,” Washington should send Kyiv the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS). By allowing Ukraine to hit key logistics nodes, command-and-control posts, and other high-value Russian military targets currently beyond its reach, ATACMS could help undermine Russia’s ability to resist advancing Ukrainian forces.

Modern variants of this missile have an up to 300-kilometer range and carry a powerful 500-pound unitary warhead. In other words, they can strike targets at around three to four times the range of Kyiv’s current Western-provided rocket artillery munitions, with a warhead about 2.5 times bigger. Ukraine could use these missiles to strike targets such as the Kerch Bridge, on which Russia relies to supply its forces in southern Ukraine.

Despite repeated requests from Kyiv and pressure from Congress, the Biden administration has for over a year refused to send Ukraine ATACMS, fearing Russian escalation. But that risk is overstated. Putin appears keen to avoid a direct conflict with the United States, making Moscow unlikely to retaliate militarily against a NATO member. And despite Russian nuclear saber-rattling, Putin has refrained from using a tactical nuclear weapon against Ukraine in response to previous Ukrainian strikes in Crimea and Russia. Washington could further mitigate the risk by stipulating that Kyiv may uses these missiles only against targets in occupied Ukrainian territory, including the illegally annexed Crimean Peninsula.

More recently, the Pentagon has contended that the U.S. military cannot afford to spare any ATACMS. But this claim, too, seems dubious. Congress would do well to make the administration prove it cannot afford to give even a small number of these missiles to Ukraine.

Kyiv suffers from a shortage of artillery ammunition. In March, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Ukrainian forces expend roughly 110,000 155mm shells per month. That’s less than one-fifth of the number they could fire if not constrained by a shortage of ammunition, Reznikov said, and far less than the number fired by Russia. This “shell hunger” has already undermined Ukraine’s ability to repulse Russian forces in the eastern city of Bakhmut. If not resolved, it could undercut Kyiv’s spring counteroffensive. The Ukrainian military estimates that effort will require almost 360,000 shells per month, according to Reznikov.

The problem, as NATO’s secretary general noted in February, is that Ukraine expends artillery rounds “many times” faster than the West can make them. In recent months, Washington and its allies have sent Ukraine additional shells to try to shore up its supplies ahead of the counteroffensive. But a senior Pentagon official said those deliveries represent a “last-ditch effort,” as Western ammunition stockpiles are dwindling. The United States and European Union are working to ramp up production, but that will take time, potentially leaving Ukraine with a dangerous gap in the interim.

Washington can take steps now to ease Ukraine’s artillery ammunition shortage. For one, the Pentagon should expeditiously heed congressional calls to reevaluate U.S. munitions requirements for a potential war with Russia, whose military will need years to recover from its heavy losses in Ukraine. This could free up additional shells for Ukraine, which will use them to continue degrading Russian forces. In other words, the more shells the Ukrainians use to destroy the Russian army now, the fewer the Pentagon will have to keep in reserve in case it has to fight the Russian army in the future.

Washington should also heed Kyiv’s requests for DPICM artillery-fired cluster munitions. The DPICM, or Dual-Purpose Improved Conventional Munition, is a type of warhead designed to release smaller explosive bomblets, increasing lethality. The United States reportedly has almost three million DPICM rounds in its inventory, many of which are still serviceable and can be fired by Ukraine’s Western-donated artillery systems. While cluster munitions admittedly do pose a heightened threat to civilians and friendly forces, Ukraine’s elected representatives believe the rewards outweigh the risks. Washington should respect that judgment.

Kyiv’s upcoming counteroffensive will likely determine the war’s future trajectory. A successful offensive will not only liberate additional territory but will likely inspire further Western aid, strengthening Ukraine’s position in future fighting and any eventual peace negotiations. But the Kremlin is betting that if the counteroffensive fails, Western resolve will falter and Russia will turn the tide over time.

By maximizing support for Kyiv now, Washington and its allies can bolster Ukraine’s battlefield prospects, helping it make good on assistance already delivered. This additional aid is not charity but a prudent investment in U.S. interests. By helping Kyiv defeat Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked aggression, the United States defends its NATO allies in Europe and diminishes its second-greatest adversary. It also strengthens deterrence of America’s top foe, China.

The United States has a vital interest in defeating Moscow’s unprovoked aggression. The best way to do so is to redouble support for Ukraine now. There’s no time to lose.

John Hardie

John Hardie is deputy director of the Russia program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.