The West Finally Starts Rolling Out the Big Guns for Ukraine

Some Ukrainians fear it could be too little, too late.

By , , and
Ukrainian tanks prepare for an attack against Russian forces
Ukrainian tanks prepare for an attack against Russian forces
Ukrainian tanks prepare for an attack against Russian forces in the Luhansk region of Ukraine on Feb. 26. Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images

The United States and its NATO allies have ramped up the delivery of tanks, helicopters, and heavy weapons to Ukraine as the country’s forces prepare for large-scale battles against Russian troops in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

The new arms deliveries represent a stark shift from Western support for Ukraine in the earliest days of the war, when U.S. and European officials, unsure of how long Ukraine could hold out against a massive Russian invasion, were wary of delivering heavy weapons that could in turn fall into Russian hands. The deliveries also reflect a shift away from defensive systems like anti-tank rockets to more offensive weapons that Ukraine needs at a critical stage of the war.

The Czech Republic opened the floodgates earlier this month by shipping tanks to Ukraine, becoming the first NATO country to do so since Russia launched its invasion on Feb. 24. The Czech Republic has also sent Ukraine infantry fighting vehicles and artillery systems.

The United States and its NATO allies have ramped up the delivery of tanks, helicopters, and heavy weapons to Ukraine as the country’s forces prepare for large-scale battles against Russian troops in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

The new arms deliveries represent a stark shift from Western support for Ukraine in the earliest days of the war, when U.S. and European officials, unsure of how long Ukraine could hold out against a massive Russian invasion, were wary of delivering heavy weapons that could in turn fall into Russian hands. The deliveries also reflect a shift away from defensive systems like anti-tank rockets to more offensive weapons that Ukraine needs at a critical stage of the war.

The Czech Republic opened the floodgates earlier this month by shipping tanks to Ukraine, becoming the first NATO country to do so since Russia launched its invasion on Feb. 24. The Czech Republic has also sent Ukraine infantry fighting vehicles and artillery systems.

Other NATO countries have followed suit with their own shipments of high-end military hardware across NATO borders into Ukraine. Slovakia sent Ukraine an advanced S-300 air defense system, and the United States on Wednesday announced it would supply Ukraine with an additional $800 million worth of military hardware. That shipment includes 11 MI-17 helicopters, 200 M113 armored personnel carriers, 100 Humvees, 300 Switchblade “kamikaze” drones, heavy howitzers, thousands of shells, and other munitions.

During the first phase of the war, many Western officials believed Kyiv could quickly fall to Russian forces in a matter of days, prompting them to balk on sending heavy weapons to a government they were unsure could survive.

That all changed after Russia’s massive offensive in northern Ukraine ran aground, thanks to stiff Ukrainian resistance backed by Western supplies of anti-tank weapons and other small arms, as well as clumsy tactical missteps by the poorly equipped Russian forces.

The transfer of heavy weapons to Ukraine is far from simple. In addition to the heavy vehicles and weapons themselves, any such transfers to Ukraine require a potentially long logistical tail to back up, including training, spare parts, and mechanics to keep the vehicles operating in the war zone. (Russia has threatened to attack U.S. and NATO weapons deliveries headed into Ukraine.)

“The tank is not just a rental car,” said Ben Hodges, former commanding general of the U.S. Army in Europe. “Whenever you’re talking about transferring any sort of mechanized or armored vehicles, you have to also think about spare parts, maintenance packages, training, fuel, ammunition … to make sure they can keep things running.”

Nevertheless, a senior U.S. defense official said on Monday that several allied nations were still considering delivering tanks to Ukraine, mostly Soviet-era variants that troops in Kyiv had already been trained on. “This is equipment that Ukrainians probably are already familiar with, so the time to train on it would be relatively quick,” Hodges said.

The logistical complications have prompted some Western governments to withhold delivering larger supplies of heavy vehicles to Ukraine, despite pleas from top Ukrainian officials for more support for their outgunned and outmanned forces.

Others, particularly some politicians in Germany, fear that upgrading Ukraine’s military with heavy weapons could turn the West into a target for further Russian aggression. That debate has reportedly sparked rifts within the ruling coalition in Germany.

A top German arms manufacturer, Rheinmetall, said earlier this week it stood ready to supply up to 50 used Leopard 1 battle tanks to Ukraine, but the German government has yet to greenlight the arms transfer. Some German officials have balked at the idea, believing it would take too long to train the Ukrainians, who are versed in post-Soviet weapons systems common in Eastern Europe, on the Western-made battle tanks. Rheinmetall’s chief executive, Armin Papperger, disputed this argument, saying they could be trained in a matter of days.

In the eyes of Ukrainians, the new spate of Western arms transfers is a welcome shift but still not enough. Current and former Ukrainian officials said the West can still do more to arm the country ahead of what is expected to be a decisive new chapter in the war.

“Without additional weaponry, this war will become an endless bloodbath, spreading misery, suffering, and destruction,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky tweeted on Wednesday, listing out cities where Russian forces committed atrocities against civilians during their military offensive. “Mariupol, Bucha, Kramatorsk – the list will be continued. Nobody will stop Russia except Ukraine with Heavy Weapons.”

Ukrainian officials and government accounts have begun using the hashtag #ArmUkraineNow on social media as they call for further deliveries of heavy weaponry.

Olena Tregub, head of Ukraine’s Independent Defense Anti-Corruption Committee, said new deliveries from the West aren’t sufficient to give Ukraine the upper hand in its fight against numerically superior Russian forces. “Ukraine is being put on an IV drip to slowly die,” she said.

Still, U.S. and European officials say the new transfers signify that Washington and other European allies are now preparing to help Ukraine not just survive the Russian onslaught, but begin taking the offensive. They say the heavy weapons transfers could prove critical to Ukraine’s military success, even if Ukraine thinks the inflows are insufficient.

“Western Europe does everything they can to support Ukraine to win this war and this support is only growing in terms of quantity as well as quality,” Arvydas Anusauskas, Lithuania’s defense minister, told Foreign Policy.

Ukraine’s growing appetite for tanks—and the push from Western officials to send more of them—is also being driven by the flatter battlefield in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, where tanks are easier to maneuver.

“Large chunks of eastern Ukraine are what’s called tank country, flat open ground ideally suited for mechanized warfare,” said Franz-Stefan Gady, a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank. “That is why Ukraine needs main battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, mid-range air defense systems, loitering munitions, etc., to stay in this fight, to battle Russian forces to a standstill, and eventually counterattack when opportune,” he said. “The key challenge for Ukrainian forces will be how to conduct large-scale combined arms operations in the face of superior Russian firepower.”

The United States began checking off some boxes on the extensive Ukrainian wish list in its newest arms delivery to Ukraine. A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity based on ground rules set by the Pentagon, said that plans are underway for Ukrainian trainers to travel into NATO countries in Eastern Europe to be trained on how to use the new systems—such as the howitzers and counter-battery radars.

Washington has also become a critical backstop for rearming NATO allies in Europe as they in turn transfer their own supplies to Ukraine. After Slovakia sent its S-300 air defense system to Ukraine, the United States deployed one of its Patriot missile defense systems to Slovakia to fill the gap. The United States also signed a major arms deal with Poland earlier this month to supply the Polish military with 250 Abrams battle tanks, potentially freeing up Poland to send some of its tanks to Ukraine—though no such decision has been announced.

Some experts argue the United States should go further and support NATO allies such as Poland transferring MiG fighter jets to Ukraine by offering to restock their air forces with older F-16 fighter jets—a transfer that some allies have balked at, and one that could be complicated when training and logistics are factored in. (Slovakia is also reportedly considering transferring its fleet of MiGs to Ukraine.)

Hodges argued that concerns among some Western countries that such military support could trigger a wider NATO conflict with Russia are overblown, and Washington needs to ramp up its weapons transfers to Ukraine further.

“We have exaggerated the risk, and the Russians know this,” he said. “We have the most powerful alliance in the history of the world scared to provide 25-year-old aircraft to a country that’s fighting for its life.”

“If we are the arsenal of democracy, then let’s be the arsenal of democracy and open the doors and push everything out that [Ukrainians] possibly need,” he added.

The debate comes at a critical point in the war, when Russia is regrouping after retreating from the outskirts of Kyiv and Ukrainian forces are cobbling together as much firepower as they can to face a new battle for control of eastern Ukraine. Pentagon officials say Russia is positioning artillery units south of the city of Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, and a publicly released British Defence Intelligence report earlier this week predicted that the Kremlin would ramp up airstrikes against major population centers in the Donbas such as Kramatorsk, a major railway hub, where a Russian ballistic missile strike last week killed 59 people.

“Ukraine could be more vulnerable to heavy artillery in the Donbas considering it’s more open if they try to contest generally instead of trying to force the Russians to fight in towns and cities,” said Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews. “Personally I would start with anti-air and UAVs to give Ukraine the best shot at air power. Long-range artillery tools could also be very useful.”

The increasing flow of Western weapons could make it harder for Russia to sustain an offensive in eastern Ukraine. Western officials believe the Kremlin is hungry to notch a significant battlefield win for their forces ahead of May 9, a major holiday to commemorate Russia’s World War II victory over Nazi Germany. Experts believe that Russia will now be challenged by a lack of supporting infantry and a slowing advance in the Donbas, after the massive losses it sustained in the first month of the war.

“For certain, the offensive can’t go on forever,” said Gady, the International Institute for Strategic Studies expert. “My guess is that Russia will not have the ability to take this fight into June. So something will have to give.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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