Nearly six months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it is clear that closing the “weapons gap” requires more effective coordination between Western allies. That is especially the case regarding the decision on if or when to provide aid that could be perceived as more provocative. A unified vision of success among Ukraine’s supporters, shaped by the vision Ukraine has for itself, should streamline decision-making and clarify what support is needed on the battlefield. This idea of success may now include retaking Crimea – annexed by Russia in 2014 – following an explosion at the Saki military base on the west coast of the peninsula this week.
Since we published our paper Closing Ukraine’s Weapons Gap in May, the situation in Ukraine has changed considerably. After failing to take Kyiv or Kharkiv, Ukraine’s two biggest cities, Russia announced in May that the primary objective of its “special military operation” would now be to “liberate” the entirety of Donbas (although Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has since said that these goals have been expanded). This change in objectives also resulted in a shift in tactics. After trying to take over the country rapidly, Russia resorted to a strategy that it used in Syria – indiscriminately shell entire cities, including civilian infrastructure, in order to gradually take control.
Although Ukraine has received supplies from abroad, a “weapons gap” remains; there is still a significant discrepancy between the equipment Ukrainians have and the equipment they need. President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly appealed to the international community for additional support, ranging from transport vehicles and communications equipment to fighter jets, air-defence systems and heavy artillery. As described by President Zelensky on 3 August, the weapons gap “is very much felt in combat, especially in the Donbas… It is just hell there. Words cannot describe it.”
In this addendum to our May paper, we wish to highlight another aspect of the weapons gap: the discrepancy between what the West has provided and what it is able to offer.
Since our last report, Ukraine has received substantial amounts of Western weapons, including High-Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), anti-aircraft missile launchers, tanks, rockets, radar systems, drones and artillery shells (including HIMARS ammunition). Western countries have also continued to train Ukrainian personnel in Europe. In early July, the UK expanded its training programme and launched a major training operation for up to 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers over the course of the next few months. The US Air Force announced in early August it was exploring expanding its training to include the use of NATO-compatible aircraft. These efforts (and others) have already made a significant difference in Ukraine’s ability to defend its territory; in the words of Valeriy Zaluzhniy, commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, the “timely arrival” of HIMARS in particular has been an “important factor” in retaining “defensive lines and positions”.
However, these contributions represent a small fraction of what Western countries are capable of providing. For example, Atlantic Council Security expert Richard Hooker points out that the US “stood up large, comprehensive, across-the-board training in Iraq and Afghanistan, including weapons systems and logistical support”. In contrast, the West has “put nothing like that on offer for Ukraine”. The West has contributed a small fraction of what it has to offer; meanwhile, requests from Ukraine have only increased in terms of both quantity and urgency. As the conflict grinds on, this trend will continue.
Experts disagree whether the hesitancy of several large Western allies is a sign of a cautious initial approach in preparation for further engagement, or a political choice to accept a minimum amount of Russian aggression. The former is certainly possible, and perhaps ideal. As many experts observe, the conflict in Ukraine has unspoken rules and red lines that serve a vital purpose in preventing the conflict from expanding. Western countries would do well to observe them. In addition, accidental escalation due to insufficient coordination and communication is not out of the question. Putin’s threats, including “hitting new targets” should the West provide long-range weapons to Ukraine, must be taken seriously as real possibilities.
However, without a more coherent approach, Ukraine’s supporters cannot coordinate effectively on the decision to provide more provocative aid. At present, decisions about how to support Ukraine currently vary according to how closely each nation links their own security to Ukraine’s fate. While this discredits Putin’s claims that the West is to blame for the war in Ukraine, it makes coordination a lot more complicated. Expert Liana Fix (Programme Director for International Affairs at the Körber-Stiftung research centre) explains: “Poland and the Baltics, for example, see Ukraine’s security as their own security”, adding that they are more willing to make significant contributions. By contrast, Germany and France are very concerned about escalation management. Fix points out that while the “aims of Poland and the Baltics in general are to weaken Russia”, this is not necessarily an aim that France or Germany share. For example, “Germany’s chancellor has been hesitant to say, ‘Ukraine has to win.’ He will instead say, ‘Ukraine should not lose this war,’ or ‘Russia should not win.’ From these comments and statements one can see that there are differences.”
Under a shared vision of a successful outcome for Ukraine, taking its lead from Ukraine itself, the country’s supporters will have more clarity on how to appropriately supply equipment and training. A coherent approach of this kind may require a joint-training command beyond the existing US EUCOM Control Centre, including perhaps NATO leadership (as experts point out, NATO is already involved). At the very least, there must be a clear, united vision of how to define success in Ukraine, and what types of aid are necessary to achieve that end, including perhaps tapping into the operational avenues Western countries already have.
The consensus among Ukraine observers is that this conflict will continue for many more months at least. Ukraine will continue to ask the West for more support, and meeting Ukraine’s needs on the battlefield will always require an informed, deliberate management of the risk of Russian retaliation. The West must be prepared to respond effectively to Ukraine’s needs in this landscape. Ultimately, Ukraine’s supporters will be better prepared to navigate this conflict strategically, and avoid unintended escalation, if they share a united vision of success. In that way, Ukraine’s supporters can more effectively aid Ukraine and help hasten the end of the war.