KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany—In the months leading up to Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainian government officials pleaded for high-end weaponry to match Moscow’s firepower. Reticent allies and partners, including the United States, considered such weaponry to be escalatory, as Russia pounded Ukraine with more than 1,000 missiles and flew 10 times more sorties than Ukrainian jets.
The distinction limiting escalatory weapons appears to have melted away ahead of a Ukraine Security Consultative Group meeting to be hosted by Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on April 26.
The U.S. and allies are already training Ukrainians to operate American howitzers, the latest Air Force unmanned aerial vehicles, and new long-range air defense systems in addition to providing advanced Russian-made air defense systems Ukrainians know how to use.
The distinction of which weapons were once considered escalatory and which were not limited the type of assistance the U.S. and allies were willing to give Ukraine. In March, a public kerfuffle between Poland and the U.S. ensued when Poland stated its willingness to transfer two dozen MiG-29s to Ukraine by turning them over to the U.S. at Ramstein. The U.S. publicly rebuffed the offer.
At the time, U.S. European Command and NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, Air Force Gen. Tod D. Wolters said the fighter jets could be seen as “escalatory.”
“The Intelligence Community assesses the transfer of MiG-29s to Ukraine may be mistaken as escalatory and could result in Russian escalation with NATO, … producing a high-risk scenario,” Wolters said in a statement.
The United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for Defense Ben Wallace told Air Force Magazine that the escalatory distinction is no longer a factor.
“Let’s be really clear about escalatory. The only escalation is happening in Ukraine as a result of Russian activity,” Wallace said in an April 8 press gaggle at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base in Romania. Wallace was on hand for a NATO air policing change of command ceremony.
He said at the time that the training required for use of sophisticated weaponry was the principal limitation.
“Fundamentally, it’s not about powerful weapons. It’s about more sophisticated weapons. And of course, the challenges, though, with anything is more training,” he said.
“The Ukrainians clearly asked for Russian Soviet-era equipment because it just goes straight in,” Wallace said of some of the assistance requested from Ukrainian officials. “You just can’t give a new airplane type overnight.”
A day later, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited Kyiv, promising armored vehicles and anti-ship missile systems, like the one that recently sank the Moskva battleship, the flagship of the Russian Black Sea fleet.
Now, the U.S. Defense Department is training Ukrainians in the use of advanced weaponry. Fifty Ukrainian soldiers finished a six-day training on how to use 155 mm howitzers provided by the United States, and another howitzer course has already begun, according to media reports. Pentagon spokesman John F. Kirby said April 22 that the U.S. has already provided training and use of Switchblade UAVs and would similarly train the Ukrainians on the U.S. Air Force’s “Phoenix Ghost” drones.
Bolstering Defense Assistance
Austin’s planned meeting with more than 20 nations at Ramstein is about coordinating defense assistance for Ukraine’s future.
“Russia’s threat is going to stay here long term,” Wojciech Lorenz of the Polish Institute of International Affairs told Air Force Magazine in a meeting in Warsaw. “We have 30 NATO members, not three or five. Some states are definitely not doing enough. There is no other option actually, we just have to push and push.”
Poland has taken more risk than most NATO allies by hosting the logistics hub for defense assistance to Ukraine, which Austin visited on April 25. Lorenz said Poland believes blow-for-blow escalation with Russia is necessary if war with NATO is to be prevented.
“If you stop escalating … the signal for [Russia] is that this region is open for the negotiations,” he said. “They receive the signal that if they provoke war with NATO, that they will probably be able to divide NATO, and they will probably be able to negotiate the status of this region.”
Lorenz said Ukrainian security experts likewise have assessed that a “large part of Western support is just a fig leaf, just to demonstrate that they are doing something.”
“But actually, their determination is pretty weak,” he summed up.
Commercial Capabilities for Ukraine
In addition to the meeting with NATO allies, however, the U.S. also is reaching out to the defense industry for help.
A Defense Logistics Agency request for information published April 22 calls on the private sector to provide feedback about “weapons systems or commercial capabilities for Ukraine security assistance.”
In the RFI, the agency says the Biden administration is working “around the clock to fulfill Ukraine’s priority security assistance requests.” For that, it needs the private sector to help “accelerate production and build more capacity across the industrial base for weapons and equipment that can be rapidly exported, deployed with minimal training, and that are proven effective in the battlefield.”
The RFI specifically calls for air defense, anti-armor, anti-personnel, coastal defense, counter battery, unmanned aerial systems, and communications.
Initially unwilling to name specific systems being donated to Ukraine, the Pentagon in the past week has released itemized lists of equipment in the security packages being delivered to the country.
An April 21 fact sheet describing an $800 million package makes note of 72 155mm Howitzers, 72 tactical vehicles to tow the equipment, and over 121 Phoenix Ghost UAVs.
Another April 22 summary of the $3.4 billion in assistance committed to Ukraine since the war began listed more than 1,400 Stinger anti-aircraft systems; more than 5,500 Javelin anti-armor systems; over 14,000 other anti-armor systems; 700-plus Switchblade UAVs; Puma UAVs; laser-guided rocket systems; and commercial satellite imagery services.
DOD insisted that the Ramstein meeting is not a NATO ministerial, but it will provide an in-between step before the June NATO summit in Madrid. Forty states were invited to attend the Ramstein meeting, with DOD reporting more than 20 RSVPs so far.
“We certainly want to hear from Ukraine and from other nations about what they’re doing in terms of immediate defense assistance, and how that might change as the fighting there changes,” Kirby said at an April 22 press conference. “I think [Austin] also wants to take a longer, larger view of the defense relationships that Ukraine will need to have going forward when the war is over.”