“Have you considered that Russia has failed to subdue Ukraine because of what we have done? Because of what our allies have done? Have you thought about it at any time?”, the United States Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, snapped on the 5th to a Republican congressman who criticized his management in the middle of a heated parliamentary session.
There is no doubt that Western support has so far been an essential element in thwarting Russia’s war plans. The admirable courage of the Ukrainians alone would not have been enough. The weapons supplied in these first weeks by some thirty countries have been essential. But so have been intangible and less talked about factors like the flow of intelligence to kyiv, help in cyber defense as well as years of Western training that better prepared Ukrainian forces for this war.
Western countries are in the process of reflecting on how to adapt this aid to the new war scenario that is emerging in Ukraine with the concentration of Russian forces in Donbas. “The war is changing level. It evolves towards a more classic model of troops against troops. The weapons sent in recent weeks have been very useful, but now more is needed,” says a high-ranking European diplomatic source.
“What we have given them so far has been incredibly useful in this first phase,” agrees William Alberque, director of Strategy, Technology and Arms Control at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, referring to anti-tank missiles. Javelin or NLAW models and Stinger anti-aircraft. “But now we’re moving into a new phase that will probably require a mix of guerrilla-style action with larger, more coordinated action, requiring longer-range artillery and tanks.”
Moreover, that change is already materializing. In recent days, important developments have been known that point to a qualitative leap. Slovakia has claimed to have donated to kyiv an S-300 battery, a long-range anti-aircraft defense system, and In compensation, the US will deploy a Patriot missile defense system on its territory.. Defense sources of the Czech Republic have confirmed to the Reuters agency the delivery to Ukraine of T-72 tanks. These are more powerful weapons compared to what has been supplied so far – usually portable anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. In both cases, they are devices of Soviet origin that the Ukrainian forces know how to handle.
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“The Czech handover is just the tip of the iceberg,” says Alberque, who previously worked in NATO. “I think there is a rapid process underway to assess what else can be delivered to them, especially the most compatible type of weaponry.” The signing by Poland, this week, of a contract worth 4,750 million dollars (4,378 million euros) for the supply of 250 American Abrams tanks, the first of which are scheduled to arrive this year, consolidates the idea that Warsaw, which also has T-72s, will be the next to supply those tanks to Ukraine. According to the IISS Military Balance 2022, it has 318 units of that model in different variants.
But the movement is much broader. The United States has reported that a hundred Switchblades armed drones are already on their way to Ukraine, for the use of which it is training Ukrainian soldiers. Washington has also announced the shipment of laser guidance systems for missiles. —without specifying a model—, within the framework of the umpteenth increase in military aid to Ukraine. The Biden Administration is offering military support to kyiv worth 1,700 million dollars (1,573 million euros) since the start of the war, to which must be added another more than 5,000 since 2014. The figure is increasing rapidly.
The United Kingdom has begun to supply Starstreak anti-tank missiles, with a longer range than the Stinger that Ukraine already receives from various donors (about 7 kilometers compared to the current 5.5) and announced new aid worth 100 million pounds (120 million euros). The EU is also increasing its support for kyiv, raising its fund to arm Ukraine to 1.5 billion euros. Germany has approved the delivery of 56 model PbV-501 infantry fighting vehicles, originating from the armament of the former Democratic Republic and currently in the hands of the Czech Republic.
“The reorganization of the Russian forces has significant implications. It reduces dispersion and also means that they can operate in an environment, like Donbas, where they have a more consolidated military position. This alters the previous balance and requires different material”, says Luis Simón, director of the Elcano Royal Institute Office in Brussels and an expert in defense matters. “If you have to take back ground, push enemies out, you need planes and tanks. And the problem is that these are complex platforms to operate. Soviet-style weaponry is useful for immediate relief. But in the West there are limited amounts of it. Therefore, if the war goes on for a long time, it will probably be necessary to buy time with deliveries of this type and meanwhile train the Ukrainians so that they know how to handle Western systems”, points out Simón.
Deliveries are gaining ground and this week’s NATO ministerial meeting has made explicit evidence of the intention to improve supplies. However, prominent experts believe that in some way Putin’s nuclear threats have conditioned some western inhibition when it comes to delivering powerful weapons to Ukraine. One example is the failed attempt to supply MiG fighter jets, which was discussed a few weeks ago and has failed. There are voices that state that the only limit should be not to attack Russia directly, but that any delivery of weapons to Ukraine has a perfect place within the framework of support for legitimate defense.
Instead, what is flowing, no doubt to Ukraine’s great advantage, is intelligence. Official communications do not abound in this section, but sufficient elements emerge to infer the importance of the matter.
“We have shared intelligence information that includes data that the Ukrainians can use to develop their military response to the Russian invasion. We share it in real time.” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said., on March 3. “We are watching very carefully. We have surveillance capabilities that provide us with a lot of information. This is important and it is something that we use in a good way. Because information, better situational awareness, is obviously something very relevant in a situation like the current one,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said this week.
Both NATO and several of its allies individually or other countries such as Sweden are active in reconnaissance and surveillance flight missions in the immediate vicinity of Ukraine’s airspace. “We don’t know exactly what they are transmitting to them, but we do know that there is intense flight activity. Why do they do it? It stands to reason that to convey to the Ukrainians information. This has been tremendously important to facilitate defense, to attack key aspects of Russian logistics, to kill generals,” says Alberque.
Simón agrees: “Although there is no public information about it, everything indicates that assistance is also being offered to Ukraine in terms of intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, through planes and satellites, and also classical espionage intelligence, so that it can have a clearer operational picture”.
Ukraine also has Western support in cyber defense, including from private companies such as Microsoft, which have publicly announced it. Gates’ company has reported several actions, one of them this weekto neutralize an attack against Ukrainian institutions from Strontium, a group linked to the foreign intelligence services of the Russian Armed Forces.
In this field, as in other military fields, Western aid gradually gained strength as education, training and financial support after the Russian aggression that began in 2014 with the annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. Now it is in a phase of metamorphosis in accordance with the evolution of the conflict. We will have to see where it will go. So far, it has been decisive.