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On Arming Ukraine

February 4, 2015

I have been sharply critical of Ukraine’s political and military leadership in the war against Russia. Kyiv must get serious, now, if it expects to prevent the further destruction and dismemberment of their country by Vladimir Putin. The lack of gravitas in military matters demonstrated by Petro Poroshenko and his goverment — favoring vacillation, candlelight prayers, hashtags and trips to Davos instead of mobilization and strategy-making — does not inspire confidence in Ukraine’s ability to stem the Russian tide.

That said, Western aid to Ukraine to date is stunningly unimpressive and indicates that even core members of NATO and the EU are willing to watch Kyiv be crushed. Angela Merkel’s Germany has signaled that under no circumstances will it assist Ukraine with weaponry, which sends a clear message to all NATO and/or EU countries east of the Oder that they, too, will be sacrificed by Berlin if Putin decides he wants to devour their homelands.

Of late, even the notoriously cautious and vacillating Obama White House, witnessing the impending collapse of Ukraine, has indicated that it might be willing to give Kyiv anti-tank systems. This has caused an outburst of panic in certain quarters, who urge not even mentioning such things, since it might “backfire.” Since Russia has already invaded Ukraine, one wonders exactly what such timid financiers — who are nicely living up to Lenin’s dictum about capitalists selling the Kremlin the rope with which Moscow will hang them — are worried about, since nobody of any importance is discussing sending Ukraine anything other than defensive armaments. Moreover, it’s delusional not to recognize that the West has already declared economic and financial war on Putin’s Russia; the Kremlin understands this reality well, even if scared Westerners do not.

Certainly Moscow would up the ante if NATO began dispatching tanks, artillery and late-model aircraft to Kyiv, but that is simply not on the table. Ukraine’s pressing military needs exist in a few areas. Conventional weapons — armor and artillery, and ammunition for them — Kyiv possesses in abundance; they have no need for heavy weapons from the West at this point.

However, there are a few areas where modest Western gifts of essentially defensive weapons — particularly light anti-armor and air defense systems, plus counterbattery radars and tactical electronic warfare gear — would prove a serious problem for the Russians. The invader’s advantage in tanks and aircraft is significant, while Russian artillery, which is doing most of the killing, dominates the battlefield in Donetsk, helped by Moscow’s tactical electronic warfare and signals intelligence capabilities.

Of course, the opponents of helping Ukraine in any way are now insisting that not only is sending Kyiv weapons a strategically bad idea, it won’t help the Ukrainians anyway. This sort of nonsense requires a brief rebuttal. Over at Slate, Joshua Keating, whose bio mentions no service in anyone’s military nor any familiarity with modern weaponry, assures us sending Kyiv weapons “won’t do any good.”

To support this statement, Keating quotes a raft of political scientists and think-tankers, none of whom would be able to tell back from front on any modern anti-armor system. I’m sure they’re very impressive on the DC cocktail circuit, but these are not the guys you want with you in the slit trench when T-72s are headed your way. Their authority when discussing what weaponry Ukraine needs is about equal to the average person on the street.

Not to be outdone, over at The American Conservative, Daniel Larison, a vehemently pro-Moscow academic Byzantinist who somehow thinks his views on military matters carry more weight than, say, my cat’s, denounces the “folly and futility” of sending Kyiv weapons. “The debate over arming Ukraine has a lot in common with the debate over arming rebels in Syria,” Larison assures us.

No, it actually has nothing in common with that. In Syria, Obama faced a situation where the rebels were seriously fragmented, lacking effective command and control, plus it has been very difficult to tell “moderate” rebels from mere criminals and jihadists. Neither was it ever clear that armaments alone would help anti-Assad forces in any significant way. Hence this White House’s reticence about just dispatching pallets of guns and ammo to Syria, while averting eyes and hoping for the best, was something I shared.

In marked contrast, Ukraine has identifiable chains of command in both the Defense and Interior Ministries, and Kyiv’s defense bureaucracy, while hobbled by corruption, looks positively Prussian compared to anything in Syria. Moreover, it’s clear that modest amounts of specific weapons systems could have a deleterious impact on Russian aggression.

Specifically, sending Javelin ATGMs to Ukraine, which has been floated by the White House of late, might help a great deal; the Javelin, which has seen little use against tanks in Iraq and Afghanistan, can defeat the ERA on Russian tanks, which older Ukrainian AT systems, mostly of Cold War vintage, are having a tough time getting past. Modern MANPADS, even in small numbers, will drive the Russian Air Force high up, reducing their effectiveness, while OTS ECM systems — again, in modest numbers — can nullify most of Russia’s big SIGINT/EW advantage (i.e. REB) quickly. (If the United States declines to supply Ukraine with such systems, many Western countries make comparably advanced equipment.) Items such as better tactical medical gear, which would drop the death rate among Ukrainian wounded, ought not be controversial to anyone.

While the West has no interest in increasing tensions with Russia, denying that Putin has invaded and is waging aggressive war against Ukraine does not change what is actually going on. Since I have exhorted Ukraine to emulate Croatia in its successful 1991-95 independence war, it bears noting that Croatian success in blunting Serbian invasion was aided by discreet shipments of modern anti-armor systems from NATO countries, particularly Germany. Sadly, Berlin seems to have forgotten this.

Even with immediate Western military aid, of the limited and defensive kind I have outlined here, Ukraine will need years to reform its defense structure to eventually turn back the Russian invasion. In the meantime, Kyiv’s forces can only hold their overstretched line with outside military help. Europeans who want to keep Putin at bay — and Russian aggression against NATO countries, especially in the Baltics, is a serious possibility — would be well advised to let Ukraine do the fighting for them, tying down as much of the Russian military as they can, for as long as possible. The alternative is chilling.

P.S. I have not broken out all acronyms, as I usually do; couch-bound “military experts” should look them up so they can learn.

From → Strategy, USG

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