Where would Ukraine’s “wings for freedom” be flying to?

Arms Trade Bulletin: January – February 2023

Today marks the first year of Russia’s unlawful invasion of Ukraine, and with a Russian spring offensive in sight, Kyiv is requesting ever more offensive weapons from NATO countries. From the very outset of the war, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has been maintaining a proverbial shopping list that included NATO-standard weapons. Despite initial hesitance among some NATO members, the Ukrainian president by now has managed to tick off much of this list. With pledges of large tank deliveries still fresh in people’s minds, president Zelensky currently lobbies for fighter jets or wings for freedom as he refers to them. 

This briefing highlights how NATO countries have shifted the nature of their supplies from Soviet-era weapons to increasingly offensive NATO-standard armaments. It also raises questions about the seemingly growing commitment to a logic of Russian defeat, rather than a diplomatic agreement, which the continuous crossing of red lines seems to imply. 

The beginning of the war: Soviet and defensive weapons 

In the first phase of the war, NATO countries were reluctant to supply sophisticated weapons to Ukraine, as they feared the danger of diversion and wished to avoid an escalation of the conflict. Besides strategic considerations, there were also technical obstacles related to the interoperability between the weapon systems of the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) and NATO countries. As a result, supplies at first were limited to Soviet-era weapons, such as the Mi-17 multi-purpose transport helicopters delivered by the US, or Mi-24 attack helicopters by the Czech Republic. 

Once these limited stocks were exhausted, the US initiated a deal with former Soviet and third countries to send their Soviet weapons and spare parts to Ukraine in exchange for NATO-standardized weapons. For instance, under its “Kruk” programme, a modernization project for its attack helicopters, Poland has ordered ninety-six AH-64E Apache helicopters from the US to replace its old Mi-24s. Morocco, for its part, has supplied spare parts for Soviet-made T-72 tanks, making it the first African country to send military aid to Ukraine.

In addition to these Soviet weapons, the US also supplied advanced but still defensive weapons, with an estimated 7,000 anti-tank Javelins as a prime example. The Javelins helped halt the Russian advance, as have many other anti-tank weapons, such as the NLAW systems, the German Panzerfaust 3, and the Swedish Carl Gustav. 

In order to counter the many missile attacks on civilian and military infrastructure, also anti-aircraft systems were needed. Even though NATO countries did not want to establish a ‘no-fly zone’ over Ukraine, they supplied the German Gepard, a ground-to-air defence armoured vehicle, and American Stingers, which are surface-to-air missiles. Although the latter proved effective, Ukraine’s air defence still remained inadequate, as Kyiv kept relying primarily on surface-to-air missiles of the Soviet S-300, which were developed in the 1960s.   

More offensive military hardware: missiles, tanks and fighter jets 

Ukrainian air defence capabilities increased significantly with the delivery of American Advanced Surface to Air Missile systems (NASAM), British AMRAAM missiles and the German IRIS-T air defence systems. Public attention though was drawn primarily to the Patriot air defence battery sent by the US, as this is one of the most reliable and effective air defence systems on the market. Using these high-tech weapons however requires training. The Pentagon thus announced that it provides training to Ukrainian soldiers at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, for an estimated duration of several months to a year.

The evolution towards a more offensive stance was accelerated by the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS). The HIMARS has a range of approximately eighty kilometres, which is twice the range of the howitzers Ukraine was previously using. Manufacturer Lockheed Martin even claims that, with modified munition, the HIMARS has a proven range of 300 kilometres. However, the US remains cautious about supplying munitions that exceed the eighty km mark as this could escalate the conflict. 

The recent decision of some NATO countries to supply tanks increases the UAF’s offensive potential even more. Although Germany was hesitant to deliver its Leopard II tanks, mounting political pressure from NATO countries led to a change in policy. Also the US and the UK have pledged to send battle tanks, namely the M1 Abraham (US) and Challenger 2 (UK) models. In addition, the UK will train Ukrainian tank crews and in Poland instructors can halve the training to operate and maintain the Leopard tanks. Finally, also transport vehicles, such as the M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle, contribute to the UAF’s defensive and offensive capabilities. 

Currently on the agenda is the discussion between Kyiv and NATO countries on the supply of fighter jets. While NATO countries like the US and Germany have refused so far, France and the Netherlands, among others, have publicly announced not to rule anything out. The UK, for its part, on 8 February announced it will extend training to Ukrainian fighter pilots to ensure they will be able to fly NATO-standard aircraft in the future. In response to  the increasing involvement of NATO countries in the conflict, Russia has warned that this will lead to unpredictable escalation

Western arms supplies in light of possible outcomes of the war

The above shows that red lines of Western countries have shifted several times, with arms supplies evolving from Soviet to defensive and later offensive NATO-standard weapons. So far, NATO countries have exercised restraint with regards to the supply of arms that could hit targets deep into Russian territory. While arms deliveries have undeniably enabled Ukraine to defend its territory more effectively, far less attention is paid to their long-term consequences on the outcome of the war. The basic question here for stakeholders to the conflict is whether one pursues the objective of the total liberation of all Ukrainian territory or of a diplomatic solution.

In the first scenario, the goal is to recapture all Ukrainian territory within its post-Soviet borders, including Crimea. While much sympathy exists for this objective, there are serious risks involved. For instance, NATO countries would need to keep supporting Ukraine, which Russia would view as an enduring provocation. This could lead to an arms race with ever deadlier weapons, more civilian casualties and, at worst, nuclear escalation. In addition, a total Ukrainian victory, could weaken the Russian state, potentially resulting in internal strife, which would further upset the region and the global power balance. The repeated crossing of red lines concerning arms supplies by NATO countries, increasingly seems to imply support for this scenario, and may undermine the prospect of a negotiated solution.

The second scenario requires Russia and Ukraine to sit at the negotiating table at some point in the future, with Russia doubtlessly expecting Ukraine to meet territorial claims. While a negotiated solution could lead to a cease-fire, there are a number of important caveats to this scenario as well. First, neither president Zelensky nor much of Ukrainian public opinion favours this outcome. It would also have grave consequences for Ukrainian citizens at the losing end of the bargain, i.e., those forced to live in annexed territory under Russian rule. 

NATO countries must keep a crystal-clear view of which one of both scenarios they intend to pursue through supplies of offensive weapon systems. Do they opt for military victory by Ukraine? Or do they want to leave room for a peace agreement? In the latter case, arms supplies are justified to the extent that they strengthen Ukraine’s future negotiating position.   

Further reading on the topic

In the news


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All articles and other news items referenced in this briefing come from third party media sources. Being not the author, IPIS is not responsible for the content of the news items or articles contained or referred to in this briefing.

This briefing was produced with the financial assistance of the Belgian Development Cooperation (DGD). The editorial is the sole responsibility of IPIS and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the Directorate-General for Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Aid.