Ukraine gets the help it needs, but is it too little too late?


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

Photo of This article is part of our Ukraine Initiative series.
This article is part of our Ukraine Initiative series.

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Show more information on This article is part of our Ukraine Initiative series.

It is 10 years since Russia first invaded Ukraine and two since it unleashed a full-scale war on its democratic neighbour.

Ukraine’s military and civilian population have resisted with unity, inventiveness and astonishing heroism. Their courage and commitment have never been in question.

Yet Western support is flagging. Voices of doubt are holding up vital supplies, weakening Ukraine’s resistance and encouraging the aggressor.

This war is about much more than Ukraine. The Kremlin seeks to fundamentally undermine Western solidarity and democracy, to impose an authoritarian vision way beyond its borders. The security and values of all NATO and European Union states are at risk.

To revive public and political support for the Ukrainian cause, Friends of Europe has launched a campaign of multi-level engagement. We are mobilising resources to generate renewed solidary with the Ukrainian’s fight to defend their freedom and ours.

As part of the new Ukraine Initiative, we are publishing a series of articles by experts and opinion shapers. Contributors include Finnish parliamentarians Alviina AlametsäAtte Harjanne and Jakop G. Dalunde; Joséphine Goube, CEO of Sistech; Karoli Hindriks, CEO and Co-founder of Jobbatical; Dalia Grybauskaitė, former president of Lithuania; Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, former president of Croatia; Olha Stefanishyna, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration; Hadja Lahbib, Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs; Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, former NATO Secretary-General; Oleksandra Matviichuk, Head of the Centre for Civil Liberties and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate; Rose Gottemoeller, former Deputy Secretary General of NATO; Maryna Ovcharenko, a university student from Kharkiv, whose family house was destroyed by Russian air strikes; Kateryna Terehova, a restaurant manager-turned-volunteer helping forcibly displaced people and orphanages in Transcarpathia; Gennadiy Druzenko, Co-founder & President of Pirogov First Volunteer Mobile Hospital; Vasilisa Stepanenko, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist at AP and Edward Reese, Ukrainian LGBTQ+ activist; and many others. 

Find out more here.

Those who support Ukraine’s resistance to the Russian invasion heaved a sigh of relief last Saturday when the House of Representatives in Washington finally passed the supplemental budget bill of $95bn, including $61bn in military assistance for Ukraine. Yesterday, the Senate rapidly followed suit, which was hardly a surprise as US Senators had already overwhelmingly approved the aid package last year. The House vote also showed a healthy majority in favour of more US aid to Ukraine with over 300 votes to approve the package, which begs the question of why the House vote had been delayed for two agonising months after its passage through the Senate, and at a critical time in Ukraine’s war effort. But, to quote Shakespeare, “All’s well that ends well”. Or nearly. Credit has to go to the House Speaker, Mike Johnson, for finally facing down the hard right wing of the Republican caucus and ignoring their threats to remove him from office. But, credit also goes to the Democratic minority leader, Hakeem Jeffries, who in a rare display of bipartisanship in US politics, worked closely with Johnson to prevent the Republican opponents of more US aid to Kyiv from using various procedural devices to block the supplemental bill from reaching the House floor. The US intelligence community also did a fine job in persuading the House Representatives that the military situation was deteriorating rapidly for Ukraine and of the catastrophic consequences for NATO and US security of a Russian victory. Playing politics is an inescapable feature of democracy but there are times when it simply has to stop.

The US aid package was a much needed shot in the arm for the Ukrainians as President Zelensky acknowledged in thanking Congress and the Biden administration, which lobbied hard for the additional aid package. Several European foreign ministers made the trip to Washington, too and some even journeyed down to Mar a Lago in Florida to put the case for Ukraine to Donald Trump given his iron grip on the Republican Party. Here the honours must go to President Duda of Poland. Trump admires Poland and has maintained strong ties with Law and Justice, the party from which Duda hails even if it is no longer in government. Poland also spends nearly 4% of its GDP on defence, twice the NATO target. So it gets Trump’s attention in the way that other European allies do not. Following his meeting with Duda, Trump came out in support for Ukraine which might well have been a factor in strengthening Mike Johnson’s resolve and convincing Republicans that a superpower like the US should be capable of dealing with more than one issue at a time: the situation on the Mexican border and support to key US partners, Ukraine, Taiwan and Israel.

The new $61 bn package for Kyiv will last for the next 12 months and beyond the US elections in November. So we can only hope that the new spirit of bipartisanship will prevail when it comes up for renewal in 2025

The US package for Ukraine does not mean that Kyiv will receive $61bn in new weapons deliveries. A total of $26bn will be used to restock Pentagon arsenals and to replace US weapons and ammunition previously transferred to Ukraine. A further $9bn is in the form of loans although future US administrations can waive reimbursement. Just under $14bn will be spent on immediate weapons deliveries. What is critical is that the Pentagon now moves fast to send the weapons that Ukraine most urgently needs, given the pressures that the Ukrainian army is under from Russian advances in the Donbas and from daily Russian missile and drone strikes against cities like Kharkiv and Ukraine’s power stations and energy grid. Hardly a day goes by when ten or more Ukrainian civilians are not killed in these Russian strikes. So we must hope that the Pentagon has used the months during which it has been waiting for the approval of the Ukraine aid package by Congress to get the weapons together and ready to ship. There is no time for the Pentagon to issue new contracts to US defence contractors to manufacture the weapons as this process would take months or even years. In the past, moving the weapons from the US to Ukraine has been bureaucratic and slow as we saw with the US Abrahms tanks, a Patriot air defence battery, Bradley fighting vehicles and HIMARS long range artillery. President Biden has confirmed that the US weapons will be sent quickly and an agreement is already in place with Kyiv to send US ATACMS, the US Army Tactical Missile System, which has a range of 160km, twice that of HIMARS, and which Kyiv has long been requesting. ATACMS will arrive just in time to allow Ukraine to strike the Russian forces massing in the Donbas for an expected spring offensive and to interdict their supply depots and lines of communication.

The question now is: what have been the consequences of the months of delay in approving the new US package and is this now too little and too late to enable Ukraine to stave off defeat, let alone march on to victory?

At first sight, it is clear that the US aid will take time to trickle through and will not be a panacea. Anticipating that the Ukrainian army will progressively be better equipped, Russia may well start its spring offensive earlier to try to seize as much territory as it can while its adversary is short on air defence, artillery shells and ammunition. For this reason it is essential that the Pentagon and the European allies who have also promised new packages to Ukraine, particularly for 155 mm shells and air defence interceptors, give Kyiv an accurate and full schedule of how much will be delivered on which dates. This advanced planning will enable Ukraine to draw down on its remaining stocks of air defence missiles and shells which it has been carefully husbanding in order to survive the current Russian onslaught while it attempts to ramp up its own domestic production. It has set the goal to produce a million drones in 2024. At least the current 155mm shell shortage will start to be reduced in July when the first batch of 300,000 shells out of a total of 800,000 that the Czechs are procuring on international markets with funding from the EU and individual European allies should arrive. Germany has also promised a third Patriot air defence battery. These are particularly useful against ballistic missiles, including hypersonic weapons, and intercept at high altitudes. Kyiv’s domestically produced systems are effective against slow flying drones but less so against ballistic missiles.

For this reason, Zelensky has requested seven more Patriot batteries and interceptors to complement the two German and one US systems that Ukraine is already operating. Denmark has announced that its first batch of F16 jets will reach Ukraine in July as the pilot training courses are completed. The Netherlands this week pledged a further €200mn of equipment and the UK Prime Minister, visiting Poland, announced a further £500mn package to be added to the £2.5bn in assistance announced at the beginning of the year. What is more important are the weapons that this package includes: 1600 missiles, including Storm Shadow cruise missiles and four million rounds of ammunition, exactly the things that Ukraine most urgently needs. A meeting this week of the US-led Ukraine Contact Group, also known as the Ramstein Group and which brings together over 50 countries that support Ukraine, can establish the priorities for these deliveries and work closely with the Defence Ministry in Kyiv to ensure that they meet Ukraine’s most urgent operational needs. In another positive development this past week the US announced that it was close to concluding a long-term bilateral security agreement with Kyiv similar to the ones that the UK, France, Germany, Denmark, Italy and Canada have already signed.

The aim is to enable Kyiv to block Russia’s efforts to advance as successfully as Russia blocked Ukraine’s spring offensive last year

Moscow clearly feels that the momentum is in its favour at the moment and has predictably denied that the new US aid package will pose any significant obstacle to its ultimate victory. It has committed 25,000 troops to its current effort to capture Chasiv Yar, an important railway junction 30 km south east of Kramatorsk, a city which, like nearby Sloviansk, are Russian strategic objectives in its quest to control all of eastern Ukraine. The Russian advance has already forced Kyiv to evacuate thousands of civilians from villages east of Bakhmut and Adviivka which lie in the path of the Russian advance. At the same time Russia has bombarded Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine close to the Russian border, this week destroying the TV tower and the principal power station. By trying to force civilians to leave Kharkiv and making the city uninhabitable, Moscow is sending the signal that capturing the city is now a military objective. So far it has failed to capture a major Ukrainian city. The Chief of Ukrainian Military Intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, has predicted that the country will face a particularly difficult situation at the end of May and beginning of June. If there is a gap between the Ukrainian army running out of munitions and the arrival of significant Western supplies, Russia could break through the fortifications that Kyiv is hurriedly building in the east and break through towards Dnipro, Kherson and even Kyiv. It may not need to go all the way to the capital to topple Zelensky and his government and force the demilitarisation of Ukraine and its incorporation into the Russian geo-political and institutional orbit. This would be a catastrophe not only for Ukraine but for NATO too. Indeed it was the thought that US soldiers could soon be fighting Russians in Eastern Europe which persuaded many Republicans sceptics to get behind the US aid package. Better that the Ukrainian army do the job instead. Financial aid to Ukraine, no matter how expensive, pales in comparison to what the US and NATO would be forced to spend in an all-out war with Russia. On the other hand, blocking a Russian advance at severe cost to Moscow in terms of thousands of Russian soldiers killed and severe attrition inflicted on the Russia army might just be the straw that breaks the camel’s back in terms of de-stabilising Putin and his regime.

So, it is not too late to save Ukraine if the financial commitments can be translated quickly into weapons and ammunition reaching the front line and air defences in sufficient quantities to allow Kyiv to protect both its forward positions and its cities, without needing to constantly shift its batteries around and make painful choices about what it needs to protect most. But, the prolonged saga over the vote in Congress in recent months has revealed a few important lessons.

First it has obliged the Europeans to look at how they can substitute for the missing US funds and capabilities. Some have stepped up magnificently such as the Baltic States, Denmark, Norway, The Netherlands, the UK and the Czech Republic

Germany, after a slow start, has become by far the largest European financial contributor and has rallied the others into action, proposing at last week’s European summit a new German-led Immediate Missile Defence Initiative to support Ukraine. Still, it has refused to give Kyiv its Taurus cruise missile. Some countries have responded more modestly such as France and Italy, but others have been missing in action and not just the “usual suspects” such as Orbán’s Hungary or Fico’s Slovakia. Recently the Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, asked his staff to look into their files on the equipment holdings of NATO’s member states to identify who has the weapons systems in their depots that Kyiv urgently needs. These stocks are routinely reported to NATO as part of the alliance’s defence planning process. It emerged that Spain and Greece have Patriot batteries as well as Poland and Romania. Moreover, Greece has the Russian S300 air defence system on which the Ukrainians have been trained in the past. EU foreign and defence ministers meeting in Luxembourg this week agreed that Poland and Romania should keep their Patriots given the permanent threat they face from Russian missiles violating their airspace. Spain and Greece, however, face no such threat and their batteries would defend NATO much better in Ukraine than in warehouses in Toledo or Volos. Disappointingly, no decision was made in this direction. European countries cannot hide behind the commonly funded EU efforts, such as the European Peace Facility. They have their national responsibility, too, and burdens need to be equally and equitably shared. So, the big contributors need to keep up the pressure and name and shame their laggard neighbours.

A second consideration is not to see the European effort as a stopgap that kicks in only when the US is between its Ukraine assistance packages or experiencing roadblocks in Congress. The problem with talking up the $61bn aid package as make or break for Ukraine is that it can give some European countries the impression that now that Biden has signed the package into law, the US is once again running the show and that they can lift their foot off the pedal. If Europeans do this it will play directly into the hands of the Republican Ukraine sceptics and make it even more difficult to get similar aid packages through Congress in future, even with a Democratic majority in the House after the November election. So, the major European countries need to exert real leadership to maintain their current level of effort in the military sphere and not fall back on offering mainly budgetary or humanitarian assistance. Rather than respond ad hoc to emerging Ukrainian needs and searching desperately around the world for urgent supplies, the EU needs to draw up a long-term strategy for military procurement and supply similar to what Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen has proposed. Ukraine’s defence industry must be folded into the EU’s defence production programme and the German-led European Sky Shield project.

A third lesson is that extra weapons need extra soldiers to operate them. Ukraine has not only a weapons and ammunition shortage but also a manpower shortage. For each soldier killed at least three are wounded

Last week the Ukrainian Rada finally agreed to Zelensky’s proposal to reduce the conscription age from 27 to 25. The government has forbidden all those males between 18 and 60 from leaving the country during wartime and is now calling up the thousands of Ukrainian men who have fled or stayed abroad. Making them return home to renew their passports is one way to conscript them as well as introducing an electronic draft system. The aim is to recruit 500,000 new troops this year, bearing in mind that Russia has increased the size of its army by 15% since invading Ukraine despite heavy battlefield losses – Russian forces have increased from 380,000 to 470,000 on the front line. The new Ukrainian army is needed to replace the exhausted soldiers who have been fighting round the clock for over two years already. However, there will be no more time limits on military service. But, the new soldiers will need to be trained on basic combat skills and on how to operate sophisticated Western military equipment rapidly if they are to be effective in the tight timeframes facing Kyiv this summer and as Russia prepares to mobilise 300,000 new soldiers in coming months. This train and equip programme will need the active support of NATO and the EU both outside and inside Ukraine. Such a programme could be a key deliverable for the NATO Summit in Washington in July. If the war is likely to go on for years it is important to plan for a constant supply of Ukrainian soldiers and an adequate rotation and retraining programme for those veterans who have served for more than 18 months. The US and the Europeans will need to work together in NATO and the EU to carefully calibrate weapons deliveries to the standing up of the new Ukrainian military units. A special NATO command for Ukraine training could put this effort on a more long term and sustainable basis, replacing the numerous ad hoc activities around Europe and North America at the moment.

The Western effort to support Ukraine cannot be dependent on a single point of failure as nearly happened in the US House of Representatives in recent weeks

So, as the European friends of Ukraine heave a justifiable sigh of relief it is important that they learn the lessons of the political deadlock on the other side of the Atlantic and do not put Ukraine nor themselves in such a position of vulnerability again. The world is now a much more dangerous place and the stakes are far too high.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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