Main Image Credit Vital support: Ukrainian soldiers training to use US anti-tank weapons in early 2022. Image: Pictorial Press / Alamy
While some have criticised the pace of Western military assistance to Ukraine, there can be no doubt that it has made a real and tangible difference on the battlefield.
‘Our way of war is not Western or Russian – it is Cossack. We just happen to be fighting with a lot of donated American and NATO equipment’. This statement by a Ukrainian soldier we met being trained at a US Army base in Germany reflects not only the trend of Ukraine receiving a mix of weapons and ammunition, but also a high level of Ukrainian adaptability.
With memories of the Afghan military collapse still fresh, many US Army advisors are keenly aware of the pitfalls associated with building partner forces in the US’s image. Learning from the failures of past security assistance efforts is just one of several factors contributing to the support for Ukrainian success in resisting the Russian invasion.
As the Russian invasion approaches the one-year mark, Ukrainian forces and international volunteer fighters have defied many Western analysts’ predictions. ‘Kiev should be told it cannot win’, wrote one analyst in the Financial Times. Others viewed Ukraine’s government as too weak and divided to mount an effective resistance to a Russian invasion. In short, many experts thought assistance to Ukraine would be more in the mould of assistance to Iraq and Afghanistan – recipients that lack the political will and capacity to use military aid to good effect.
Some of the success in defying these expectations can be credited to US, Canadian and European bilateral efforts to train, assist and equip Ukrainian forces since Russia’s 2014 invasion, not to mention the massive injection of over $50 billion in economic and security aid since the 2022 invasion. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Mark A Milley suggested that Russia may have suffered up to 100,000 casualties in less than 10 months of fighting, decimating morale and forcing Putin to tap a new overall military commander.
Over the last year, our US Department of Defense Minerva team has interviewed dozens of NATO, US and Ukrainian military personnel across Europe. Our aim is to understand the ways in which this effort to train and equip the Ukrainians is working. Observing training and assistance first-hand, our view is that Ukrainian military success is a function of low-level ingenuity and creativity, as well as high motivation and morale.
Military Assistance Works When Tailored Accordingly
Ukrainian creativity and initiative are on full display. Training on US artillery, Ukrainians supplement instruction and then battlefield deployment with a smartphone app that assists with calculating targeting information. The app, created by a Ukrainian civilian working with the military, helps artillery units quickly compute firing information by inputting information such as environmental conditions, distances and charges – a game-changer in artillery duels with Russian forces. This is one of many examples that demonstrate a military organisation capable of incorporating human capital in ways that tap ingenuity and knowledge of the details of combat challenges while preserving chains of command – a stark contrast to Russian military culture and practice.
US trainers have displayed innovative approaches to helping Ukrainian soldiers bolster their fighting skills. Although not originally planned, US trainers have provided supplemental classes – like medical instruction – during downtime between primary training classes on Western artillery.
Many experts thought assistance to Ukraine would be more in the mould of assistance to Iraq and Afghanistan – recipients that lack the political will and capacity to use military aid to good effect
Task Force Orion, the National Guard unit tasked with facilitating Ukrainian training, has come up with other novel ideas too. A junior officer we spoke to who manages Ukrainian linguists developed a specialised training programme for interpreters. These interpreter-focused classes give linguists instruction on the weapons platforms transferred to Ukraine, enabling better translations once the primary training gets underway.
Unlike interpreters in Iraq and Afghanistan who mostly translated basic conversations, Ukrainian linguists must interpret instructions and tactics for advanced weaponry that often have no analogous words in their native language. Ukrainian interpreters are also working hard to translate training manuals and the user interfaces on more complicated artillery pieces, as these items still only appear in English. Another example of US and Ukrainian creativity is the use of ‘tele-maintenance’ lines between the battlefield and support locations in Eastern Europe, like a call-in service centre with operators who actually answer calls! Officers underscore the importance of this connection due to high maintenance requirements for Western-supplied equipment.
Ukrainian success, however, is not a story of flawless execution. Ukraine’s armed forces struggle to absorb and maintain vast quantities of Western war matériel. This has led one observer to joke, ‘Ukraine has become the Svalbard Global Seed Vault of modern weaponry. At least one type of every military platform in existence, and every calibre of shell, will soon exist there’, and another to remark on the need for an ‘International Maintenance Legion’ to take care of all the different weapons systems in Ukraine. One Ukrainian soldier commented to our team that his unit struggles to procure manuals for Spanish weapons and tables of fire for shooting German-made artillery shells from Norwegian artillery pieces.
The US command structures put in place to implement assistance complicate efforts to help the Ukrainians. With elements from at least five different US military command structures – in conjunction with the newly established Security Assistance Group-Ukraine (SAG-U) and other European countries (as well as Australia and New Zealand) – working to build up Ukrainian capabilities, the US risks dividing authority, unity of effort, and responsibility for Kyiv’s effectiveness. Having taken over for the 18th Airborne Corps in November 2022, the SAG-U is still working to find its bearings after Lieutenant General Antonio A Aguto Jr took command in December. Pulling personnel from US Army Europe and Africa and elsewhere in the region, the organisation does not have experience in security assistance and is currently staffed by fewer personnel than the 18th Airborne Corps had on the same mission earlier in the year.
Escalation management remains a major challenge in the context of providing new weapons to Ukraine. Many Ukrainian troops we interacted with asked repeatedly why it takes so long for the US to make decisions on providing advanced weapons and training. In December, the camp was only half occupied because US policymakers were still deliberating whether to provide unit-level manoeuvre training to the Ukrainians. A decision was made in December to step up training in January, as only about 3,100 Ukrainians had been trained by Task Force Orion in 2022.
Western Reluctance to Further Arm?
Ukrainian frustrations with the pace and limitations of assistance are real. However, Russia is a nuclear-armed power, and the US must play by a different set of escalation management rules in this indirect conflict. Had Ukraine been invaded by a non-nuclear power, the US likely would have intervened more directly, perhaps with airstrikes and boots on the ground. Instead, Moscow and Washington trade rhetoric about ‘red lines’ and what is and is not acceptable in terms of weapons, aid and training.
The back-and-forth communication about ‘red lines’ is like a game of chicken that reflects deep strategic thinking about deterrence and risks and a desire to manage escalation. This is why it took so long for the Biden administration to give the Ukrainians long-range HIMARS (with numerous restrictions). In 2023, the US is giving Patriot air defence systems and 50 Bradley Fighting Vehicles to Ukraine, further ratcheting up the sophistication of weapons systems in use. Other European countries coordinate within this slow escalation ladder approach, with Germany pledging a Patriot battery system and armoured vehicles to Ukraine. Coordination is not absolute. With Poland and Finland (and others) pledging German-made Leopard main battle tanks, Berlin conceded to allowing tank transfers only if the US was in lockstep with European pledges. Even with London first promising Challenger main battle tanks to Ukraine, this suggests that there are varying levels of perceived risk in providing modernised tanks to Ukraine. With Ukrainian forces losing ground in Soledar and Bakhmut, pleas for Western tanks might appear to be working, as the Biden administration is finally set to provide Abrams main battle tanks.
The slow and deliberate approach to security assistance, although frustrating at times, is the right method considering Russia’s potent nuclear capabilities
Timelines for Western tanks arriving in Ukraine are unknown. However, Ukrainian forces need these tanks and training immediately, as one Ukrainian on the front messaged us this past week, ‘Right now where we fight we haven’t seen more than two our tanks simultaneously [sic]’.
Rather than too little too late, this more deliberate process is best understood as smart incrementalism in the face of a nuclear-armed adversary. Not only does this approach limit the risk of escalation, but it also affords Ukraine and its Western partners the opportunity to take a trial-and-error approach, testing tactics and equipment against the Russians before getting too far down the road with unproven, costly assistance.
Managing Escalation and Expectations in Training and Equipping Ukraine
The war in Ukraine is far from over. But one thing is for certain: US-led security assistance efforts have made a real and tangible difference on the battlefield. If the US and its Western partners can streamline equipment transfers and command relationships, Ukraine will be better positioned to defeat Russia’s full-scale invasion. There will, of course, be diplomatic roadblocks, such as Switzerland preventing Germany from exporting Swiss-made ammunition to Ukraine.
Two main challenges persist: escalation management and Western expectations for success.
The slow and deliberate approach to security assistance, although frustrating at times, is the right method considering Russia’s potent nuclear capabilities. It is understandable that many in the West are calling for even more assistance than NATO countries have already provided. But those advocates should remember that each time the US and other European countries provide a new type of advanced weaponry, such increases in assistance may prove provocative, triggering an even more brutal response from Russia. Such logic will constrain the next level of escalation, such as the provision of F-16s – and similar NATO-produced fourth generation fighters – until lockstep agreement is reached between the US and European allies on how this will increase tensions with Russia.
The US and the West face a paradox: how successful can the Ukrainians be with donated arms and supplies, short of dragging the US and its partners into a direct conflict with a nuclear-armed Russia? Such concerns have led Washington to impose numerous restrictions on Kyiv in how it utilises Western intelligence and weapons systems in conducting counteroffensives and interdicting Russian supply lines. Similarly, continued lofty expectations of Ukrainian battlefield performance might hinder realistic objectives and outcomes in the current conflict. This presents a future problem in terms of narratives on how the war is going, negotiating a settlement, and how much longer Western citizens will permit their elected leaders to continue the open-ended support to Ukraine.
The US and its partners should keep battlefield conditions in context with measured security assistance, while taking steps to streamline equipment transfers and optimise command relationships. Our interactions with Ukrainian soldiers and their commanders indicate that assistance can be directed in ways that leverage the Ukrainian armed forces’ organisational and cultural strengths on the battlefield. A nuanced approach of this sort can help Ukrainian soldiers to use hardware (and software) to exploit Russian military asymmetries. Such efficiencies mean achieving quality over quantity with the Ukrainians, purposefully avoiding security assistance mistakes made in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and South Vietnam. This is no easy task, but the alternative is even worse.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the US Naval War College, Department of the Army, Department of the Air Force, Department of Defense, or US Government. This article was supported by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research under award number FA9550-20-1-0277.
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