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OPINION

Not too little, not too late. Pavel Luzin on why Western aid can ensure Ukraine's victory

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Three very important events have recently occurred on the political and diplomatic front of the Russia-Ukraine war.

Firstly, the leaders of France, Germany and Italy, after their visit to Kiev, gave up (at least for now) their attempts to play a mediating role in a peaceful settlement and seem to have stopped advocating “saving Russia’s face”.

Secondly, Russia reacted very sharply to Lithuania's implementation of the EU decisions to limit the transit of sanctioned goods through its territory to the Kaliningrad region.

Thirdly, Russian diplomacy tried to start a conversation about ending the war - directly with Washington, not Kiev. (Here we can leave aside the question of the adequacy of this attempt. We can also leave out of the equation the question of the adequacy of the whole foreign policy approach when the aggressor denies the attacked country any international subjectivity or equality and prefers to communicate only with the leading powers, to which it considers itself to belong).

The important fact is that the Kremlin is trying to find a way out of the trap into which it has driven itself by the war, and today it has a choice between finding an acceptable formula for a cease-fire or a new escalation. In doing so, the threat of escalation is used as an attempt to force the West to talk to Moscow and not to abandon the “face-saving” stance.

In turn, the West continues to provide military and economic aid to Ukraine, and the contents of that aid allows us to judge the political objectives of the Americans and Europeans in this war. And despite the fact that in various countries the public has doubts about the sufficiency of that aid, and that accusations are currently being levelled at France and, especially, Germany for withholding supplies to Ukraine, all this requires an objective analysis.

Rearming Ukraine

To better understand what role Western military aid to Ukraine plays in the war and, accordingly, what the West's strategy vis-à-vis this matter is, it is worth comparing the amount of weapons Kyiv has been receiving with what it had before the war and what it was able to seize from the aggressor in the course of hostilities.

It is important to understand that a significant portion of the weapons that Ukraine nominally had on the eve of the full-scale invasion by Russia was naturally not combat-ready. Another portion, and not an insignificant one, was lost in battles with Russia or as a result of massive missile strikes in the first days and weeks of the war. Nor should it be forgotten that even surviving military hardware requires regular servicing, has a finite lifespan, and often requires a complete overhaul after four months of war. Moreover, captured Russian hardware is seldom ready for immediate operation, and is also in need of serious repair and re-equipment before it can be used.

As can be seen from the table, the West is not only seriously engaged in maintaining the combat effectiveness of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, but, in fact, it has been fundamentally rearming Ukraine. And all this in addition to the massive supplies of anti-tank systems, man-portable air defense systems, anti-ship missiles and the American lend-lease, which has not even started yet. Regarding the latter, it may be recalled that under the Lend-Lease Act, a whole 60-day period from the date of its signing (and the law was signed on May 9) is allowed merely for developing a supplies delivery procedure.

The West, in fact, has been fundamentally rearming Ukraine

Moreover, as far as barrel and rocket artillery is concerned, it is not even the number of guns that plays a decisive role, but the number of shells for them. And if we assume that every day of the war Ukraine spends 6,000 shells of the main calibers, 122 and 152 mm, and the stock of those shells is officially close to depletion, it means that with the total consumption of about 750,000 shells, their pre-war stock hardly exceeded one million pieces.

By the way, Russia, too, with its daily consumption of 60,000 shells should face a shortage in the coming months. This follows from the fact that with much less intensive fighting and much smaller consumption of shells during the Chechen wars, the shell shortage started as early as the summer of 2002, after 56 months of fighting (12.1994-08.1996 and 08.1999-07.2002). Of course, we do not know at what rate Russia had been producing those shells over the past 20 years, but in 2014 it was decided to restore and repair everything that had been produced earlier, including during the Soviet period. The pace of such restoration was at the level of 570,000 different shells per year (the purchase of the same number of new shells would have cost about 40 billion rubles), which means that by early 2022 Russia could have repaired about 4 million shells.

With a daily consumption of 60,000 shells, Russia should face a shortage of them in the next few months

In this context, it is clear that 220,000 shells for the 108 M777 howitzers alone, or 36,000 shells for the L119 howitzers, is quite a substantial aid. It should also be taken into account that this is only the first package of military assistance and the accuracy, range and ergonomics of the arms supplied by the West are superior to those of the Russian systems.

The table also shows that so far Ukraine has not received any strike aircraft, except for some Mi-24 attack helicopters and spare parts to support the Ukrainian fleet of MiG-29s. This is because retraining pilots for the new equipment, training ground personnel and preparing the maintenance infrastructure, even with the best efforts, will take many months. And it is not rational to spend resources on something that cannot be ready for use within a few weeks. The same, by the way, applies to American, British or German tanks. In this case, of course, we are not talking about attack UAVs, which were and are being delivered under contracts and as part of the aid - Ukraine does have trained pilots and the appropriate infrastructure for their maintenance.

Ukraine's urgent need for advanced medium-range air defense/missile defense systems that would be effective against, primarily, Russian cruise missiles, in addition to what it has in place, is also evident today. And this is considered a far more pressing need than heavy tanks, helicopters, or fighter jets, even though the training of operators of such systems, as the preparation of the systems themselves, will also take months. Thus, we can expect Ukraine to get NASAMS from the United States and Iris-Ts from Germany as early as this autumn or even earlier (Ukraine will buy additional systems from Germany).

NASAMS is an anti-aircraft missile system, a short to medium range air defense system
NASAMS is an anti-aircraft missile system, a short to medium range air defense system

Is the aid timely and sufficient?

It turns out that the volume and pace of military aid to Ukraine by the West in general correspond to the scale of the threat that Ukraine faced on February 24, 2022. And in the current circumstances it was hardly possible to supply more armaments in a shorter time. Two factors act as objective constraints here.

The West could hardly supply more arms within a shorter timeframe

Firstly, it is the post-Cold War refusal of NATO countries to work for the stockpile as part of their defense policy - they simply do not have hundreds and thousands of idle howitzers, multiple rocket launchers and armored vehicles in stockpiles. This is in addition to the fact that Ukraine does not have an extra thousand qualified military personnel to send en masse to master those weapons while other qualified military personnel fight Russia.

Secondly, the Alliance's own defense plan serves as a constraint: one cannot simply take large quantities of modern weapons from the armies of certain member countries without seriously reducing the defense capabilities of all the allies at once. For example, the defense spending standard of 2% of GDP is only met today by 8 out of 30 NATO countries (although there were only 3 such countries in 2014). And the standard of spending at least 20% of the defense budget on new armaments is met by 21 NATO member states (only by 7 in 2014). To complain that not all of the allies by far have been sufficiently far-sighted during the previous years and have not spent enough on their defense is only to test the strength of one's hindsight. You get what you get.

What the West wants

Based on all of the above, it is quite clear what goals and objectives the West has for itself in the current war. In general, the support for Ukraine is aimed at Ukraine’s victory in the war. The main criteria of this victory, obviously, is the preservation of its statehood and potential for sustainable socio-economic development in the long term.

In the practical dimension, the military assistance to Ukraine, which will only be increasing in the coming months, is designed to block Russia’s threats in all directions, east, south, north and northeast, for starters. It is also designed to help Ukraine grind down Russia's military potential as much as possible in defensive operations. And here it is important to understand that large-scale offensive operations with what Ukraine already had by May-June could have pushed Russian troops back a few steps but would likely have allowed Russia to better preserve its army and resources. Moreover, such an approach reduces, though does not completely remove, Moscow's ability to escalate by drawing new states, from Moldova to the Baltic countries or Finland, into the conflict.

The next stage is likely to be about curbing Russia’s military threat: reducing the possibilities for shelling Ukrainian cities and infrastructure and conducting offensive operations, and in the long run – about its final elimination, both for Ukraine itself, and for Europe and post-Soviet states. In the latter case, Ukraine's already renewed military capabilities will supplement the Western sanctions that have already been adopted and are being implemented or those that will be implemented in the coming months and are yet to be adopted.

And it will not necessarily be a question of trying to quickly drive Russia out of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Crimea. On the contrary, a slow suffocation of Russia, coupled with the development of Ukraine against the background of its current patriotic upswing, is more likely to result in Russia itself giving up the territories it had seized. And the strong ressentiment concerning the Crimean and wider Ukrainian issue, similar to the one that was felt in France and Germany concerning the Alsace and Lorraine question in the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries, will simply lose its strength in Russia.

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