Military Assistance to Ukraine: Rediscovering the Virtue of Courage
Main Image Credit Welcome supplies. Courtesy of Reuters/Valentyn Ogirenko
Since 2014, the story of Western military assistance to Ukraine has been one of halting progress and self-imposed thresholds, transcended by acts of resolve. This is a story about courage.
As the Donbas War unfolded in 2014, the correlation of forces seemed clear to all. The Battle of Ilovaisk in September 2014 and the Battle of Debaltseve in January–February 2015 appeared to validate the notion of ‘escalation dominance’. Regardless of what Ukraine did, Russia could always pour in additional capabilities and prevail. This same notion was used to argue against arming Ukraine. Relatedly, the notion that there was ‘no military solution’ had already been used by President Barack Obama on 26 March 2014, before becoming Chancellor Angela Merkel’s signature statement about Ukraine. These interrelated notions provided the backdrop for the provision of only non-lethal assistance. The first wave of shipments to Ukraine, between July 2014 and March 2015, was limited to humanitarian aid and non-lethal military goods such as helmets and body armour.
From March 2015, with conflict intensity having fallen markedly, allies focused on longer-term non-lethal assistance, most notably training for the Ukrainian armed forces. The main allied efforts were the US-led Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine (JMTG-U), Canada’s Operation Unifier, and the UK’s Operation Orbital, all launched in 2015. Poland and Lithuania made substantial contributions to these training efforts, mainly through the JMTG-U, as well as bilaterally. Between 2015 and January 2022, the US-led JMTG-U trained more than 27,000 Ukrainian personnel, Canada’s Operation Unifier 33,346 personnel, and the UK’s Operation Orbital over 22,000 personnel.
Arms Transfers up to 2021
Over the 2014–2021 period, arms transfers to Ukraine were very limited. According to SIPRI’s arms transfer database, not a single country transferred major armaments prior to 2018. Exports of military goods – which include armaments, as well as ammunition and technical and non-lethal equipment – were also low. According to the EU Arms Export database, from 2014 to 2020, the largest EU exporters were Poland with 129 million euros’ worth of exports and Czechia with 52 million euros’ worth. Contrary to claims made in a 9 April article in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, which used data on licenses rather than actual deliveries, France’s exports were worth 27 million euros, and likely did not include lethal equipment. Polish, Czech and Lithuanian exports, on the other hand, included lethal equipment, notably ammunition.
In 2018, the US crossed its self-imposed limitation to providing ‘non-lethal’ assistance with its first deliveries of Javelin anti-tank missiles (further deliveries occurred in 2019 and 2021). Also starting in 2018, Czechia exported self-propelled artillery and infantry fighting vehicles, and Poland exported MT-LB armoured track vehicles. Importantly, Turkey agreed to the export of Bayraktar TB2 combat drones, with deliveries commencing in 2019. By November 2021, the only countries that had supplied complete systems to Ukraine were Czechia, Poland, Turkey and the US.
The Race to Support Insurgency Warfare
From December 2021, with the realisation that a full-scale Russian invasion was imminent, the race was on to prepare assistance focused on asymmetric or insurgency warfare. The US prepared a $200 million package, with a focus on ‘additional Javelin and other anti-armor systems, grenade launchers, munitions, and non-lethal equipment’. The package was approved in late December, with shipments arriving in late January 2022.
Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia supplied weapons to Ukraine from late January, including US-origin Javelin anti-tank weapons and Stinger MANPADs, with the US accelerating the export licensing required for such third-party transfers. Czechia and Poland both supplied artillery ammunition and, in the case of Poland, GROM MANPADs and light mortars.
The UK made a pivotal contribution in the same period with the delivery by 20 January of 2,000 next-generation light anti-tank weapons (NLAWs), together with a team of trainers. The widely viewed images of British C-17 flights flying weapons into Ukraine at the eleventh hour, while avoiding German airspace, resonated powerfully across Europe. Germany, at that time, was not only refusing to transfer arms to Ukraine, but also blocking third-party transfers. The rising pressure helped nudge the Netherlands to approve and Canada to deliver lethal assistance shortly before the invasion. France, acting with deliberate discretion, also delivered Milan and Javelin anti-tank systems and Mistral MANPADs, together with trainers, prior to the invasion.
Russia initiated its new war of aggression on 24 February 2022. On 26 February, a first wave of European governments announced supplies of lethal equipment to Ukraine: Slovakia came first, followed by Belgium and later in the day by Germany. Commitments followed the next day from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Greece, Spain, Portugal and Romania; on 28 February from Finland, Italy, Croatia, Slovenia, Luxembourg and North Macedonia; and on 1 March from Australia. The UK played a key coordinating role by organising donor conferences and setting up an International Donor Coordination Centre.
By 25 April, focusing just on man-portable systems, the US had delivered or committed more than 1,400 Stinger missiles, 5,500 Javelin missiles, and 14,000 other anti-armour systems. The UK had delivered 5,361 NLAWs, over 200 Stinger missiles, 360 anti-structural munitions, as well as Starstreak anti-air systems. Other allies combined had delivered or committed at least 700 Stinger missiles, hundreds of other MANPADs, 100 NLAWs, and over 20,000 other anti-tank weapons.
The Race to Support Peer-on-Peer Warfare
From early April, attention shifted to heavier and longer-range armaments for large-scale combat in Ukraine’s east and south.
Over the course of April, Ukraine received supplies of Soviet-standard systems, with Poland and Czechia each supplying self-propelled artillery, infantry fighting vehicles, multiple rocket launchers, and T-72 main battle tanks. Estonia also supplied towed artillery systems. Additionally, the Czech defence industry started to provide repair services for Ukrainian land systems, while unspecified allies, most likely in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and supported by the US, provided ‘spare parts and components’ for Ukrainian combat aircraft.
Allies further west faced two options: backfill CEE allies to allow them to supply greater numbers of Soviet-standard systems, or supply Ukraine with NATO-standard systems. Both options are being pursued out of necessity. Important pledges were secured at a US-convened donor conference on 26 April. US pledges include 90 M777 howitzers with ammunition and training, which were almost fully delivered as of 10 May. Australia, Canada and the UK also pledged towed artillery, and France, the Netherlands, Germany and Norway self-propelled artillery. To date, however, German deliveries seem subject to struggles between slow-moving Social Democrats and more forward-leaning elements. In the maritime domain, the UK pledged ground-fired Brimstone anti-ship missiles.
A US bill authorising $24.1 billion of additional military assistance – over six times more than the $3.7 billion spent in the first two months of the war – seemed certain, pending slight delays, as of 12 May. With this development, the US contribution is set to become substantially larger than all European contributions combined.
As fighting continues in Ukraine, Western governments may already take stock of a few lessons.
First, the US has proven once again that it is Europe’s indispensable ally. Europe’s inability to do more raises the need for higher defence spending to ensure not just the right capabilities, but also sufficient inventories of a range of weapons systems.
Second, CEE allies – notably Poland, the Baltic States and Czechia – thought, spoke and acted earlier, better and more courageously. Larger allies further West should create new mechanisms within their national systems to give voice to experts from the CEE region.
Third, the current war is the culmination of a long process of mounting danger, as well as self-paralysis in the face of it. In finally unlocking lethal assistance to a victim of armed aggression, Western capitals rediscovered – belatedly – the virtue of courage.
So what is courage in the current context? It is the fact of doing more for the team in the face of danger than others currently do. It is the act of walking up to the boundary of what feels safe – and moving it. It took courage for CEE allies to supply ammunition when no one else would; for Turkey to supply combat drones; for the UK to fly in NLAWs in January; and for CEE allies to be the first to supply tanks and heavy weapons. Courage is what makes alliances strong and the states within them secure. And it is the lack of it that breaks them both. It took the attempted destruction of a European country for the West to relearn this most foundational virtue. Let us not forget it again.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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