The Biden Administration’s efforts to help Ukraine, through sanctions and intermittent weapons shipments, may not be enough to save Kyiv or prevent Putin from consolidating his gains if and when the capital falls. Despite their enormous courage and tactical successes to date, the Ukrainians face a Russian opponent that is numerically superior and clearly willing, on the basis of recent activity, to target civilian populations in the quest to subjugate Ukraine’s major cities. At the same time, the most obvious option for avoiding this outcome—imposing a no-fly zone—is not something NATO will do, unless it wants a war with Russia.
But short of that, the U.S. and its allies can do and must do more to help the Ukrainians now.
First and most urgently, we need to keep the Ukrainian army in the fight with an unbroken supply of the weapons and supplies. The latest $350 Million aid package is welcome, but even more will be needed in coming days as the fighting continues and the munitions burn-rate accelerates. The Ukrainians will need a steady flow of small-arms ammunition, counter-drone rifles, Javelin and NLAW anti-tank weapons, and Stinger anti-air missiles, as well as secure communication systems and medical supplies. Anti-air missiles are especially critical for protecting Ukrainian ground units from air attack. The Stresla missiles being provided by Germany have not yet been sent, and a large number of these date from Communist times and are likely unusable.
The U.S. and its allies will need a comprehensive plan for sustaining the Ukrainians through what could be a multi-year fight. The administration’s request for $10 billion in funding for arms and humanitarian aid is a step in the right direction. But this is not just about funding; we also have to ensure that we actually make the weapons the Ukrainians need. Stingers, for example, are based on old technology, and some of their components are no longer produced. Those that we have been sending either come from our own, limited inventory or those of our European allies, which require our permission to re-export. We need to remove or simplify these restrictions to make the process faster, while rushing into production a follow-on version of the Stinger that we can make in abundance.
The U.S. and its allies also need to make sure that the weapons, once produced, actually make it into the hands of the Ukrainians. This is not as straightforward as it may seem, since Russia may soon be able to control Ukrainian airspace. We need to help the Ukrainians develop redundant, overland routes so that entire shipments aren’t lost in a single Russian airstrike, as well as safe zones in neighboring countries where Ukrainian soldiers can replenish, train and see their families before returning to the fight. Our model should be 1980s Afghanistan, where the US ran a successful campaign to sustain the Mujahadeen against the Soviets.
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Another thing that the Ukrainians urgently need is intelligence. While we are currently providing some intelligence, we are not, as the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee has pointed out, providing what is needed most: real-time, tactical battlefield intelligence of the kind that would enable them to locate and destroy Russian units on the battlefield. Providing such information to Ukrainian troops would give them a crucial edge against numerically and technically superior opponents.
The US also needs to take urgent steps to help to bolster the defensive capabilities of the NATO allies that directly border Ukraine. The Administration’s recent plus-up in supplemental funding doesn’t help these allies; it only covers pay and backfilling of U.S. troops sent from to Europe. What allies like Poland, Romania and the Baltic States need are the kinds of weapons that would allow them to target and destroy Russian tank units—weapons like ATACMs (surface-to-surface missiles), HIMARs (artillery rockets) and PRSM (long-range, precision-strike missiles). Given their short range, these weapons are well-suited to the Eastern European landscape and would have little use in a war against China. The mere fact of providing them to these frontline states would strengthen NATO’s deterrence and send a clear signal to Putin that an attack on NATO would be met with heavy casualties.
The U.S. also has an inventory of weapons that it is in the process of decommissioning that could be given or sold to frontline NATO states, such as the F-15, F-16 and A-10 aircraft. Doing so would not only strengthen these militaries but allow them to send the post-Soviet equipment in their current inventories, like MiG fighters, to the Ukrainians, who are already well-acquainted with their operation.
The U.S. should also make better use of the large number of troops we have stationed in Western Europe by moving them East. The Stryker Brigade recently shifted from Germany to Romania should make its permanent home there, and the 173rd Airborne sent from Italy to Norway should make Norway its new home.
These shifts may not be welcome for Western European allies like Germany and Italy, which benefit economically from the units’ presence on their soil. But the benefit they derive from a more secure eastern flank will more than outweigh the loss. It is critical that these allies remain diligent in sticking to the commendable decisions that many of them (most notably, Germany) have made to increase defense spending. This is, after all, about defense of their own continent, which has to be understood not as a momentary commitment, but a long-term one.
In parallel, the U.S. needs to rethink some of its proposed changes to our nuclear forces. Now is not the moment, when Putin is making explicit nuclear threats, to cut weapons like the B-83, our most powerful nuclear bomb, or the low-yield W76-2 low-yield weapon. And it is certainly not the moment to jettison strategic ambiguity by embracing a declaratory policy that would limit our response options in a nuclear crisis. Announcing a reconsideration of these ill-advised plans would send a loud signal to Moscow and to allies who have been unnerved by the Biden Administration’s willingness to weaken our nuclear posture.
In all of these cases, there is a lot more that the U.S. and its allies can do to help Ukraine, deter Russia from attacking Eastern NATO, and position themselves to have better options as the crisis continues to escalate. On countless occasions over the decades—in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan—the Russians have aided and abetted America’s enemies, always under the nuclear shadow. In Ukraine, we have an opportunity to return the favor but in aid to a brutally besieged people whose cause could not be more just.
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