The US and its allies have made a “substantive” change in the type of weaponry they are providing to Ukraine to support its defense against Russian attacks. These weapons being sent to Ukraine come with crucial restrictions, as US officials attempt to avoid a conflict with Russia.
The Biden administration has been vocal about its support for Ukraine’s defense, particularly air defense, which is still a top priority. However, this shift in strategy comes after Ukrainian forces demonstrated their ability to utilise these systems appropriately by not striking within Russian territory. The US has also provided other long-range systems, such as the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), which Ukraine recently used in a strike against Russian forces in the occupied city of Makiivka.
However, the US officials are still cautious in their approach, and are providing these weapons with limitations to avoid a direct confrontation with Russia. The US wants to avoid a situation that could lead to a wider conflict, while still supporting Ukraine’s defense.
Quality of arms Ukraine receiving is lowered
Ukraine has been receiving pledges from its international allies for the delivery of heavy weapons almost daily, including Leopard 2 battle tanks from Norway and MiG-29 fighter jets from Slovakia. The US government announced a new military aid package of $350 million for Ukraine on March 20, but it did not include the M1 Abrams main battle tanks that were previously promised.
US officials have stated that they are trying to shorten delivery times and that they will deliver older models of the M1 Abrams by fall. In January, Politico reported that the United States intended to remove the classified armour package, which includes depleted uranium, from the tanks before sending them to Ukraine due to export regulations.
Gustav Gressel, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations specialising in armed conflict and military affairs, has stated that this is a common occurrence. Ukraine will be receiving the export variant of the Abrams tanks, the same ones that are used in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.
Gressel noted that the armor being sent to Ukraine is similar to that of the older German Leopard 2A4 tanks that Norway and Poland have previously supplied. He also highlighted that the older M1 Abrams tank is a formidable battle tank, equipped with a good thermal imaging camera and a powerful cannon, making it superior to Russian tanks in terms of handling. Although it may not have the most advanced technology, it still provides significant combat capability and could play a crucial role in Ukraine’s defense.
Are these enough for Ukraine?
During a recent press briefing, US Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Dr. Kathryn Wheelbarger, stated that the US and its allies are providing Ukraine with critical military equipment and training, aimed at bolstering Ukraine’s defense capabilities against Russian aggression. She emphasised that this assistance is in response to Russia’s continued efforts to acquire Ukrainian territory, despite facing weaknesses in their ability to defend the territory they have already taken.
According to John Ryder, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO, the US is not only providing advanced weaponry such as the Patriot missile system and the Bradley armored vehicles, but also crucial training for Ukrainian forces. This training, combined with the improved weaponry, offers Ukraine an opportunity to change the equation on the battlefield and gain momentum in their efforts to defend their territory and potentially retake lost territory.
Why these limitations are being imposed?
The United States is providing modified weaponry to Ukraine not just because of export regulations, but also due to concerns about avoiding an escalation of conflict with Russia. Concerns about the capture and analysis of weapons by the Russians also play a role. Ukraine is worried about what would happen if a tank or other weapon was left behind and captured by Russian forces, according to Gustav Gressel, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
In a similar vein, the US has been cautious in providing M777 howitzers to Ukraine since April 2022, as officials fear they could be used for offensive operations instead of defensive ones. The weapons were handed over without GPS navigation and associated on-board computers, making them less accurate. The Ukrainian army was able to quickly overcome the limitations of the US-delivered M777 howitzers, as they installed their own systems, including the GIS Arta military software developed in Ukraine, to effectively coordinate artillery strikes.
In May, media reported that Ukraine had deployed M777 howitzers using GIS Arta software to stop the advance of a large number of Russian troops crossing the Siverskyi Donets river near the village Bilohorivka in the Luhansk region. Gressel highlighted the importance of digital systems in artillery operations, stating that “With artillery, firing orders go much faster digitally.” He also noted that Russia still heavily relies on radiotelephony in their artillery operations.
Serhiy Hrabsky, a former officer in Ukraine’s armed forces, believes that the limitations of weapons systems sent by Ukraine’s allies are not a cause for concern. Hrabsky explained that all guidance information systems are integrated into NATO’s command structures and can only be used in the framework of NATO tasks. He added that this was a common practice, and Ukraine used its own systems to coordinate its artillery strikes.
More about modification of weapons
The weapons US has been delivering to Ukraine have been modified to prevent Ukraine from using missiles with longer ranges. To avoid escalating tensions with Russia, the United States modified the export of Javelin missiles to Ukraine. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova had previously warned that long-range missiles would be a “red line” that would make the United States a party to the conflict, and the modification was made to reduce this risk.
However, some experts believe that the concerns over the escalation of the war by Russia are exaggerated. Stephen Blank, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a former professor at the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, has argued that Russia started the war and has caused destruction in Ukraine. He believes that Ukrainian strikes should not be limited to exclude Russian territory. He also pointed out that Russia can concentrate its military equipment on the border with Ukraine and “fire at will” without fearing a counterattack, which gives them a significant advantage.
According to Blank, Ukraine’s allies within Europe are more concerned than US officials about the escalation of the conflict with Russia. The Biden administration is reportedly seeking to preserve NATO unity, taking these concerns into account. NATO has emphasised repeatedly that it is not a party to the conflict and will not be drawn into it. However, Gressel criticized the idea in the US that the war could be managed minutely to achieve a desired stalemate, calling it an “illusion.” He argues that war is too complex and chaotic to be micromanaged, and any restraint in Western weapon deliveries is a signal to Putin that the West is not serious.
Gressel argues that any limitations on Western weapon deliveries are interpreted by Putin as a signal of weakness and an indication that the West is not fully committed to defending Ukraine. He suggests that such limitations give Putin a chance to “win the war by sitting it out,” which would be detrimental to Ukraine’s territorial integrity and security. Blank also believes that the limitations on weapons systems are due to a fear of Russia and an escalation of the conflict by Russia. However, he considers these concerns to be exaggerated and advocates for demonstrating to Russia that Ukraine “won’t be pushed around.”
Ukraine in finding solutions
Despite the limitations on the weapon systems, Ukraine’s army has been able to find solutions to make the most of the weapons they have received. For example, the M777 howitzers delivered by the US without GPS navigation and associated onboard computers were quickly installed with Ukraine’s own systems, such as the GIS Arta military software, which was developed in Ukraine to coordinate artillery strikes. This has enabled the Ukrainian army to use the howitzers effectively in the field, with firing orders going much faster digitally than through radiotelephony, according to experts.
Furthermore, international allies have promised Ukraine missiles with a range of 150 kilometers, which could provide Ukraine with an advantage on the battlefield. However, Ukraine has pledged not to fire these missiles into Russia, but only in areas occupied by Russia.
Advocates are pushing for the United States to provide more military capabilities to Ukraine in their ongoing conflict with Russia. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Bob Gates wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post calling for a “dramatic increase in military supplies and capability” to be given to Ukraine, with the most critical need being armor.
Despite the calls for increased military support, the US has expressed reluctance to provide weapons that could escalate the conflict. The US has rejected Ukrainian arguments that they need every possible tool to repel the invasion, instead emphasising the importance of finding a diplomatic solution to the conflict.