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Ukraine Needs Long-Range Firepower for Victory

Kyiv’s allies should give it the ability to shift strategic gears.

By , the Baker Botts fellow in energy and environmental regulatory affairs at Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.
Ukrainian service members fire on Russian positions.
Ukrainian service members fire on Russian positions.
Ukrainian service members of an artillery unit fire toward Russian positions on the outskirts of Bakhmut, eastern Ukraine, on Dec. 30, 2022. Sameer Al-Doumy/AFP via Getty Images

Ending the war in Ukraine and saving lives requires decisively defeating Russia. But exceedingly difficult decisions lie ahead. Moscow’s campaign of destruction against Ukraine’s energy system weaponizes winter against Ukrainian civilians, seeks to exhaust Ukraine’s air defenses, and sets the stage for a significantly more severe European and global energy crisis in the winter of 2023 and 2024. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s likely goals are to make Ukraine uninhabitable and destabilize European politics through a refugee crisis, break the political will of Ukraine’s military benefactors, and force a cease-fire that allows Russia to retain stolen territory. As a backstop, Russia aims to destroy Ukraine’s infrastructure so thoroughly as to render it an economically failed state ripe for re-invasion after a temporary peace.

Ukraine thus finds itself on the wrong side of a highly consequential law of conflict: The offensive (Russia) has the initiative in altering its strategy and only needs to be right once to inflict massive, potentially existential harm. Kyiv needs a strategic shift in 2023 to save its citizens’ lives and spare the country further destruction by “defending forward,” taking a offensive approach to shield its citizens, but it will be hard pressed to do so without political assent from key NATO parties, especially the United States. The status quo approach favors Russia over time. How, therefore, might American and other NATO decision-makers think about accepting incremental risk in the near term versus deferring a strategy shift decision now and instead accepting future risk?

To start, Russia’s escalatory shift—if successful in retaining seized Ukrainian territories—would very plausibly embolden it for further revisionist actions. This would open pathways to direct NATO-Russia military confrontation that have not yet arisen even in today’s tense environment. Future campaigns of conquest would in many cases leave the United States and its allies with far fewer and much worse options than what they face now. Imagine a future attack on the Suwalki Gap to create a land bridge from Kaliningrad, Russia, to Belarus, for instance.

Ending the war in Ukraine and saving lives requires decisively defeating Russia. But exceedingly difficult decisions lie ahead. Moscow’s campaign of destruction against Ukraine’s energy system weaponizes winter against Ukrainian civilians, seeks to exhaust Ukraine’s air defenses, and sets the stage for a significantly more severe European and global energy crisis in the winter of 2023 and 2024. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s likely goals are to make Ukraine uninhabitable and destabilize European politics through a refugee crisis, break the political will of Ukraine’s military benefactors, and force a cease-fire that allows Russia to retain stolen territory. As a backstop, Russia aims to destroy Ukraine’s infrastructure so thoroughly as to render it an economically failed state ripe for re-invasion after a temporary peace.

Ukraine thus finds itself on the wrong side of a highly consequential law of conflict: The offensive (Russia) has the initiative in altering its strategy and only needs to be right once to inflict massive, potentially existential harm. Kyiv needs a strategic shift in 2023 to save its citizens’ lives and spare the country further destruction by “defending forward,” taking a offensive approach to shield its citizens, but it will be hard pressed to do so without political assent from key NATO parties, especially the United States. The status quo approach favors Russia over time. How, therefore, might American and other NATO decision-makers think about accepting incremental risk in the near term versus deferring a strategy shift decision now and instead accepting future risk?

To start, Russia’s escalatory shift—if successful in retaining seized Ukrainian territories—would very plausibly embolden it for further revisionist actions. This would open pathways to direct NATO-Russia military confrontation that have not yet arisen even in today’s tense environment. Future campaigns of conquest would in many cases leave the United States and its allies with far fewer and much worse options than what they face now. Imagine a future attack on the Suwalki Gap to create a land bridge from Kaliningrad, Russia, to Belarus, for instance.

This means policy decisions on Ukraine must look at today—but with an eye to deterring wars of tomorrow. As recent history shows, any remnant Russian territorial foothold within Ukraine’s 1991 borders will likely become Moscow’s pretext for its next conflict, just as Russia’s seizure of Crimea and parts of the Donbas in 2014 helped set the stage for the current war. For centuries, Moscow has displayed a pattern of seeking “security through conquest.” These actions have, at various times, included expanding into the Baltics, Moldova, Finland, and much of modern Ukraine; participating in several partitions of Poland; conquering much of the Caucasus and Central Asia; and executing multiple takeovers of Crimea—most recently in 2014. Russian political figures may disagree on internal governance, but their relative alignment on territorial expansion in the former Soviet and Russian imperial zones suggests that even significant changes to who runs Russia would not assure neighbors’ security.

Deterring a future war means Ukraine will first need to recapture a nearly Hungary-sized portion of its territory that remains under Russian control. This will likely require main battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, lots of artillery, and the ability to interdict Russian troops and supplies 30 miles (and ideally, much farther) behind the front lines. I focus on the last item—long-range precision strike capacity—because Ukraine cannot win without it, and only the United States can both provide it at scale and inspire other alliance partners to join in.

Longer-range precision fires do two key things. First, on the tactical level, they allow Ukraine to expend munitions rather than soldiers and can make Russia’s occupation of the Donbas, Sea of Azov coast, and eventually Crimea untenable. The High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (known as HIMARS) has been critical to date. HIMARS’s lethality would rise to a whole new level if NATO provides the Ground-Launched Small Diameter Bomb system—which offers roughly twice the range of Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System weapons that Ukraine now uses, high accuracy, formidable hard target destruction capabilities, and an existing “ready to go” inventory of thousands of munitions. In short, the Ground-Launched Small Diameter Bomb would turn a HIMARS truck into a poor man’s tactical jet—without the associated vulnerabilities to Russian air defenses.

Second, much longer-range fires could help Ukraine curtail strikes on its battered civilian and industrial infrastructure as well as interdict Russian military regeneration and reinforcement capacities before they reach the battlefield, goals that upgraded air defenses alone cannot achieve. Kyiv now pursues a 1,000-kilometer (or 621-mile) range indigenous drone system, which could target airfields in Belarus and deep into Russia as well as munitions plants, naval bases, fuel storage, military depots, staging areas, and railways. Deep strikes—at an intensity of dozens or more per month—would be a proportional response against Russia’s now monthslong campaign against Kyiv’s industrial base and energy system. They would also erode Russia’s offensive warfare capacity without directly targeting Russian civilians or political leadership, thus advancing military aims while managing escalation potential.

Ukrainian deep strikes aiming to degrade Russia’s offensive military potential would borrow from NATO’s 1980s Follow-On Forces Attack concept. This approach sought to first hold ground and then facilitate battlefield victory by disrupting and destroying follow-on Soviet forces and logistical links up to at least 800 kilometers (or 497 miles) behind the front lines, defending forward to help reduce nuclear escalation risks. A modern higher-intensity Ukrainian deep interdiction campaign would also seek to facilitate battlefield victory while simultaneously being self-defensive. The objective would be a secure peace for both Ukraine and Russia based on restoration of—and respect for—pre-2014 borders. Public and private diplomacy can and should emphasize that point.

Deep interdiction is not by itself a war-ender. But it would turn time and defense burdens against Russia by reducing ammunition availability as well as facilitate Ukraine’s battlefield gains by forcing Russia to choose between allocating air defense resources to protect its military sustainment base or forces on the battlefield. Scalable 1,000-kilometer-range loitering munition production would also give Ukraine the ability to credibly retaliate if Russia began using ballistic missiles imported from Iran to strike targets in Ukraine.

As referenced above, Kyiv is already laying the technological groundwork for this shift, but it likely will not be able to scale it up to a strategically impactful level without NATO support. A Ukrainian deep drone strike campaign should be a Ukrainian enterprise from build to bang, but this would not preclude NATO countries from providing component parts, especially since they have already collectively provided Ukraine with systems responsible for killing thousands of Russian soldiers to date. Yet Moscow has not crossed the nuclear threshold or otherwise sought direct military conflict with the alliance. Key inputs would include guidance systems, motors, and multi-effect warheads. Loitering munitions capable of accurately delivering 40 kilograms (or 88 pounds) or more of explosives to a target 1,000 kilometers away at a unit cost of $100,000 or less would not be out of the question. That would mean delivering a warhead akin to a Ground-Launched Small Diameter Bomb over a cruise missile range at a cost roughly equivalent to a Javelin missile round.

The stakes are high—and likely generational. Ukraine has an uninvited but real chance to build back stronger—if Russia is pushed completely out. If, however, Russia retains a foothold (including in Crimea), investors will avoid Ukraine, a Texas-sized void of instability will plague the remainder of Europe, and other Russian neighbors—including the Baltics, Poland, and Kazakhstan—will face a Kremlin emboldened to again trade blood and treasure for soil. Moreover, if the United States does not step up in 2023, then the war and its consequences will not somehow disappear. They will instead be amplified in the present and compounded for future leaders to face, likely on much more unfavorable terms.

Shifting strategy and expanding U.S. support for Ukraine to include high-volume, longer-range precision fires would be an investment in Eurasian and global security and well-being. Simply staying the course and failing to offset Russia’s strategic shift of recent weeks would (in fact) amount to making a decision—albeit one that imperils longer-term regional and American security interests. The West cannot hide from the ugliness Russia chose to unleash, but it has the capacity to help Ukraine defeat it and set the conditions for a lasting peace. Decisions Washington makes in the coming 12 months—and that American voters have a voice in and should speak in support of—will shape Eurasia and core American economic and security interests for the next 25 years and perhaps longer.

Gabriel B. Collins is the Baker Botts fellow in energy and environmental regulatory affairs at Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, whose funding sources are listed here, and a senior visiting research fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies.

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