December 15, 2023 | Insight
U.S. Needs a Multiyear Vision for Ukraine Aid
December 15, 2023 | Insight
U.S. Needs a Multiyear Vision for Ukraine Aid
As the White House warns that it’ll soon exhaust its allotted funding for Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy traveled to Washington this week to urge Congress to approve a must-pass aid bill for his embattled nation. The chief impediment is a contentious debate over U.S. border security provisions that Republicans want in return for appropriating more aid for Ukraine. But there’s another concern in Republican circles: Some GOP holdouts say that while they remain generally supportive of Ukraine, they’re reluctant to invest further in a war that Kyiv’s top general recently called a “stalemate.” These Republicans first want the Biden administration to articulate how that investment will allow Ukraine to achieve victory and peace.
Stalemate or no, pulling the rug out from under Ukraine would hurt U.S. interests. But these lawmakers do have a point: Promises to support Ukraine for “as long as it takes” does not make a strategy. The United States needs a coherent, long-term gameplan to break the stalemate and convince Putin he can’t outlast the West.
This strategy should aim to help Kyiv weather what will likely be a tough 2024 while putting the pieces in place to eventually enable Ukraine to liberate more territory. In addition to investing in production of key armaments, Washington and its allies should revise their training programs for Ukrainian troops with an eye toward enabling them to conduct combined-arms operations at scale. Western countries can facilitate this effort by providing engineering and minelaying equipment to help Ukraine bolster its defensive lines. This, in turn, could allow Kyiv to spare more troops for training in the West.
You May Not Be Interested in the War, But It’s Interested in You
Some Republicans have vowed to oppose further Ukraine aid until the administration reassures Congress that it can achieve victory, not “stalemate.” Their argument seems to assume that Washington could unilaterally walk away from a stalemated war without severely damaging U.S. interests. That is not the case.
Thanks in part to Western aid for Ukraine, Russia has suffered staggering losses of men and materiel. Yet Vladimir Putin has shown no sign of backing down. He’s likely betting that the West will eventually tire of supporting Ukraine, which is critically dependent on foreign assistance. The congressional debate over Ukraine aid may have only reinforced that belief. If the United States cuts aid for Ukraine, Europe is sure to follow.
Unless and until Putin is ready to quit, an end to Western support will not lead to peace talks or an enduring stalemate. It would mean a Ukrainian defeat. Indeed, the word “stalemate” itself is poorly suited to the current conflict, which remains a high-intensity war of attrition. Both sides must keep pace or else eventually collapse.
Cutting aid for Ukraine would jeopardize hard-won victories Ukraine has already achieved. But if Putin is allowed to salvage his war, it won’t just be Ukraine’s problem. An emboldened Russia would pose a greater threat to NATO. And China, seeing that Western support for Ukraine eventually faltered, might be more inclined toward military aggression against Taiwan.
The Path Forward
The failure of Ukraine’s 2023 counteroffensive makes clear that there is no quick or easy path to peace. Yet U.S. policymakers have consistently failed to plan beyond the short term, resulting in missed decision points. A more forward-thinking strategy is needed. The first step is to diagnose what’s gone wrong and how to fix it.
Opinions differ on the ingredients for success. Some observers contend that Washington has given Ukraine just enough support to hold the Russians at bay but not enough to win. If only Washington would throw its full weight behind Kyiv’s war effort, they argue, Ukraine could achieve victory.
There’s an element of truth there. To be sure, Ukraine needs more of just about everything. And since Russia invaded in February 2022, the Biden administration has repeatedly wasted precious months deliberating whether to give Ukraine certain armaments. For example, one wishes Washington had sent ATACMS missiles to Ukraine sooner, before its 2023 counteroffensive had petered out. Likewise, had the West been more proactive in providing training, armored fighting vehicles, and other materiel for the counteroffensive, the Russians might’ve had less time to dig in.
But those shortcomings alone don’t explain why the offensive failed. As analysts observed during field research in Ukraine, Kyiv’s forces struggled to conduct combined-arms operations at scale. Such operations require coordination among multiple maneuver units and between different combat arms, a complex task demanding significant training and experience. Until Ukrainian forces can scale offensive operations, they probably won’t be able to make large gains against a well-prepared Russian defense.
There’s another problem with the “just send more” argument. Ukraine’s military relies heavily on artillery, yet the West now lacks enough spare artillery ammunition to resource another major Ukrainian offensive. Production has begun to increase and will continue to climb over the next couple of years, provided Washington and its allies make the necessary policy decisions. Still, Ukraine will likely have to endure “shell hunger” for much of 2024. Meanwhile, Moscow has received a large influx of artillery ammunition from North Korea, and Russia’s own defense industry has started to hit its stride.
With these realities in mind, the West should formulate a long-term vision for Ukraine aid. This strategy would have two phases. First, we should help Ukraine hold the line and attrit Russian forces in 2024, while at the same time redressing weaknesses in the Ukrainian military. Then, as Western production of artillery ammunition ramps up, we should help Ukraine go back on offense.
Admittedly, this future Ukrainian offensive may not succeed. But until Putin accepts peace, Ukraine will have to fight anyways. Even if Kyiv cannot liberate more territory, Washington could still achieve partial success by convincing Putin that he can’t outlast the West and must negotiate. As an added bonus, Ukraine will continue degrading the military forces of America’s second-greatest adversary.
Putting 2024 to Good Use
Ukraine will probably have to spend 2024 largely on the defensive, especially if Putin conducts another round of forced mobilization. Fortunately, if past is prologue, we can count on Moscow to squander troops and resources on ill-fated offensives, undercutting its ability to rebuild force quality. By absorbing these blows, Ukraine can sap Russian offensive potential and position itself to eventually retake the initiative.
In the meantime, Kyiv and its backers should work on laying the groundwork for a successful Ukrainian offensive. The West must continue to expand production of artillery ammunition. But that’s not all. Now’s the time to invest in the production of key enablers that were lacking during Ukraine’s 2023 offensive, such as short-range air defense systems, mine-clearing equipment, and small electronic warfare systems designed to counter drones.
In addition, Western industry could help Ukraine produce both short-range and long-range one-way attack drones, offsetting Russia’s current advantage in those areas. Washington should also contract additional ATACMS production specifically for Ukraine. This would help obviate stockpile concerns that have limited U.S. deliveries so far.
Most important, Western countries, working hand-in-hand with Kyiv, should reform their training programs for Ukrainian troops. This effort should ultimately aim to enable Ukrainian forces to scale offensive operations. Redressing Ukraine’s shortage of trained staff officers at the battalion and brigade levels will be key.
Where possible, these training programs should address Kyiv’s constructive criticisms so they’re better tailored to Ukraine’s battlefield environment and fighting style. One Ukrainian servicemember noted, for example, the U.S. combined-arms training program in Germany did not incorporate drones or Ukraine’s “Kropyva” intelligence mapping application, both integral to Ukrainian operations.
It may take some time to fine-tune these programs. The most important thing is to begin sooner rather than later so we’re not forced to scramble and compress training timelines, as happened during the lead-up to the 2023 counteroffensive. The Biden administration says it wants to help improve Kyiv’s military in order to “put Ukraine on a solid foundation for next year.” But Washington has offered no plan for how to do so. That should end now.
To support this strategy, we should take a page from Moscow’s book. As Ukraine’s General Valerii Zaluzhnyi recently noted, Kyiv “cannot easily spare soldiers who are deployed to the front.” But if it were to build something similar to the extensive Russian fortifications and minefields that helped stymie the 2023 counteroffensive, Ukraine could afford to send more troops to the West for training. Ideally, these will include some of its better, more experienced units.
For its part, Kyiv is eager to “boost and accelerate the construction” of defensive fortifications, as Zelenskyy declared earlier this month. These efforts have already begun. The West could help by providing Kyiv with additional engineering and minelaying equipment.
The United States could also carve out an exception to its policy banning the transfer of anti-personnel mines. As a Ukrainian serviceman recently told me, Ukraine needs such mines in greater numbers, especially pressure-activated models (rather than command-detonated mines like the Claymore, permitted under the policy.) Washington already makes an exception for the Korean Peninsula. While these mines can pose a risk to civilians, Ukrainian territory is already littered with unexploded ordnance. And Russian occupiers ultimately pose the greatest threat to Ukrainian civilians.
Although some in the West may be tired of war, Putin remains determined to fight on. The alternative to aid for Ukraine isn’t stalemate or peace. It’s a Ukrainian defeat — and a world that’s more dangerous to Americans and our interests.
Congress must recognize this reality and pass a Ukraine aid bill without further delay. Lawmakers should then press the administration to develop and implement a strategy to support Ukraine over the long haul.
John Hardie serve as deputy director of the Russia Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power. For more analysis from John and FDD, please subscribe HERE. Follow John on X @JohnH105. Follow FDD on X @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.