Main Image Credit Slowly does it: US airmen load pallets of ammunition onto a C-17 Globemaster III bound for Ukraine in August 2022. Image: ZUMA Press / Alamy
While the provision of Western support to Ukraine has seen some notable successes, the slow pace of decision-making has made it more difficult to capitalise on Russian weaknesses.
There is a triumphalism to Western governments’ messaging over the war in Ukraine. As Chief of the Defence Staff Admiral Sir Tony Radakin told the UK’s House of Commons Defence Committee, Russia has expended about half of its combat power over the past 18 months, a result of Ukrainian bravery and the steady supply of arms by Ukraine’s international partners. US and UK intelligence successes in providing early warning of Russia’s intentions, combined with the unity and expansion of NATO, all contribute to a sense that Western defence establishments are not only doing what is right, but doing it well.
The upbeat narrative is partly justified. But the war in Ukraine has also highlighted significant deficiencies in the machinery of government across NATO capitals, and it is vital that these are corrected to ensure the readiness of the Alliance for future threats. The most glaring deficiency is the inability of Ukraine’s partners to appreciate the lead times between decisions and their desired effects.
This deficiency is being demonstrated at great cost in Ukraine’s current offensive. That Ukraine would need to be on the offensive by late 2022 was already acknowledged in assessments as early as April of that year. The capability requirements for such operations were becoming apparent from July, and reports to Western capitals were articulating clear training, equipment and support needs from September. Despite the requirements being known and understood, the decision to provide this support was not taken until January 2023, with the implementation of these decisions still in the process of being carried out.
Had the decision to equip and train Ukrainian forces been taken and implemented when the requirements were identified in the autumn, Ukraine would have had a much easier task in reclaiming its territory
The delay between knowing what was needed and agreeing to do it has proven very costly. The disarray among Russian forces in the winter of 2022–3 following a chaotic mobilisation and a lack of preparedness for winter warfare left them vulnerable early in 2023. Luckily for Ukraine and its partners, this weakness was extended by the stupidity of General Valery Gerasimov, who embarked upon an ill-conceived series of offensive operations using under-trained troops throughout February, slowing the preparation of Russian defences.
The decision to provide equipment for offensive operations in mid-January 2023, however, meant that it did not start arriving until February and March. Ukrainian units then had two months of training to understand how to operate the equipment, which is a very short period. From March onwards, Russian defences in the south went from being nascent to formidable, as the Ukrainians were not on the attack and Russian forces were free to improve their fortifications. Ukraine was therefore forced to go on the offensive before its units were fully prepared, because not doing so would have seen the task exceed the capabilities of the available forces. Had the decision to equip and train Ukrainian forces been taken and implemented when the requirements were identified in the autumn, Ukraine would have had a much easier task in reclaiming its territory.
Russian incompetence in launching offensive operations in January 2023 saved Ukraine’s allies from the full consequences of their indecision. The Ukrainian offensive may yet succeed. But the price has risen steeply because of Western lethargy. If this was a one-off example, it might be seen as a consequence of complex political factors. But this lethargy is a feature and not a bug. Indicators and warnings that Ukraine would be attacked were reaching Western capitals from July 2021, with confidence hardening from September. By December the US and UK intelligence communities were sufficiently confident to make their conclusions public, but it was not until January 2022 that serious efforts were made to try to equip Ukraine, by which time the range of systems that could be provided with enough time left to offer training on them was narrow.
For all the UK’s boasting of its ‘Fusion Doctrine’ and cross-government working, the war in Ukraine has seen more interdepartmental feuding than collaboration across Whitehall
The failure to recognise decision points risks causing Ukraine serious problems in 2024 also. The massive consumption of ammunition from deficient NATO stockpiles was evident from June 2022. Across the board, assessments were clear that Western capitals needed to expand production of munitions and key spare parts like barrels. Here, however, the urgency felt in defence ministries has not been recognised across government. In the UK, for instance, while the Ministry of Defence has had the power to purchase materiel from the international market, sending UK money abroad and kicking the impending shortfall down the road, there has been little cross-government strategy on expanding production.
The UK has no barrel machine, for example. Setting one up could create skilled forging jobs, contributing to the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda. But no such forward thinking has taken place. Now the lead time to rectify these deficiencies risks being shorter than the remaining available munition stocks. For all the UK’s boasting of its ‘Fusion Doctrine’ and cross-government working, the war in Ukraine has seen more interdepartmental feuding than collaboration across Whitehall.
It would be easy to blame these problems on politicians. Politicians always like to preserve decision-making space. But it is also the case that civil servants have given the illusion of choice long beyond the point at which decisions have to be made. Culturally, Western governments have spent decades writing long-term strategies and managing small-scale, short-term crises like terrorist attacks. It appears the institutional memory of how to cohere the operational level of war has atrophied. This malady is correctable, but only if we can acknowledge that there is a problem to be addressed.
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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Dr Jack Watling
Senior Research Fellow, Land Warfare