Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, a contributor to CNN, twice winner of the Deadline Club Award, is a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, author of “A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Might Still Happen” and the SubStack blog Andelman Unleashed. He formerly was a correspondent for The New York Times and CBS News in Europe and Asia. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
It seems that increasingly these days, the United States is letting Ukraine fight, valiantly, but is it with one hand tied behind its back?
The US and its allies have given the Ukrainians artillery systems, some of them quite advanced, but withheld those with the longest range or, as arms experts have suggested, the greatest sophistication.
In an address to Congress on Wednesday, Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska asked US lawmakers to send air defense systems to her country “in order for rockets not to kill children in their strollers.”
Still, Ukrainian officials have expressed their public gratitude for weapons delivered so far. Ukranian President Voldymyr Zelensky, in his daily video message Monday, observed that his armed forces are now “able to inflict significant logistical losses on the occupiers.”
Military observers tell me that Zelensky and his senior generals have expressed their delight in the new systems that are appearing, hoping that their words will encourage a greater willingness of the West to release even more advanced systems that could turn the tide of battle by leaps and bounds.
There is an electronic war that cries out to be fought – drones that need to be jammed or flown to precise targets, long-range artillery with GPS targeting, enemy chatter that needs to be plucked from the skies. Some of these capabilities are increasing as the West gradually introduces new systems to the battlefield and trains Ukrainians to operate them.
Reinforcements and upgrades appear to have begun to stabilize the situation on the ground, but not regain any substantial territory lost across Ukraine’s east by Russia’s offensive.
The situation needs to keep being “reassessed” by the West, and especially by the US, as Ukraine’s cities and their people get crushed by Russian forces who should be held at bay.
Take the HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems). These advanced precision rockets Ukrainian forces have been using since their arrival on the battlefield in June, have led to the destruction of some 20 Russian ammunition depots and command posts that had been positioned too far behind enemy lines for earlier artillery. Russian Maj. Gen. Artem Nasbulin, commander of the 22nd Army Corps, was killed earlier this month by a HIMARS strike on his command post near the port of Odessa.
But these HIMARS systems are still limited to at most a 50-mile (80-kilometer) range of attack. A similar American weapon, the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), using the same launch platform, but with a nearly 200-mile (300-kilometer) range, has not been released to the Ukraine military.
It could easily be launched into Russian territory from points well behind Ukrainian lines. This is not something the Biden administration is anxious to encourage. The US is walking a razor’s edge on how far it can go towards supporting the Ukrainian war effort without prompting Russian forces to attack NATO countries. Of course, Moscow may not need an excuse to widen the war – attacking a neighboring nation that posed no direct threat is precisely what Russia has itself been doing since the start of its invasion of Ukraine.
There are lots of other reasons – most of them quite reasonable on first blush – that some of these systems are being withheld. Officials at the State and Defense Departments say they don’t want these systems to fall into enemy hands, the fear being, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Regional Security Mira Resnick told me: “They could be seized and then exploited by the Russians or another party that would put our war fighters at risk.”
At the same time, there must be some attention paid to how deeply the transfer of weaponry to Ukraine degrades America’s own strategic stockpiles. Fewer than 3,000 ATACMS rockets are still in US stockpiles and a next generation rocket of this type is not due for another year or more, according to Chris Dougherty, a senior fellow for the Defense Program and co-head of the Gaming Lab at the Center for New American Security in Washington.
“Electronic warfare is central to knocking the Russians off balance,” Dougherty told me. “This is an important distinction. We need to be able to attack their comms and targeting networks.”
The more the strategic landscape shifts in Ukraine, these warfare needs and America’s willingness to adapt mean these formulas remain in a constant state of flux. And the requests of the Ukrainian military are advancing as well. It just seems that the Ukrainians are all too often behind the eight-ball.
Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, Jessica Lewis, is in Europe this week as part of just such a periodic reassessment, visiting Germany. There, in the advanced weapons transfer center, scores of NATO specialists plus several from Ukraine, monitor weapons allocations from more than 40 countries. Teams are fulfilling Ukraine’s present needs and a special unit is anticipating future requirements.
The question of just what to give or sell to Ukraine for its defense has been a problem since the earliest days of the war. Back in February, Ukraine was pleading for some old Soviet-era jet fighters to be transferred from NATO to their air force where Ukrainian pilots, trained on these very planes, could have made very good use of them to defend their nation’s skies and repel attacks from Russian attackers. Ukraine never got them.
Today, with Russian forces overrunning vast stretches of the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine and sending cruise missiles into residential neighborhoods deep within the country in areas where there has never been any military action, suddenly the question of what America supplies should be provided and when is taking on increasing urgency.
Earlier this month, the Pentagon cleared the deployment of two advanced Norwegian-American NASAMS air defense systems for use in Ukraine that can be used to intercept Russian cruise missiles.
It was not in time to prevent a volley of such missiles launched from a Russian submarine in the Black Sea from hitting a shopping center, dance studio and wedding hall in Vinnytsia, a remote provincial city deep in the interior of central Ukraine, some 240 miles inland. At least 23 civilians were killed and 64 hospitalized, including four children.
Somehow, Ukraine and western responses have been failing to keep up with the pace of horrors that Russia is prepared to inflict, and without any comparable response.
“War is hard. It’s really complex,” said Dougherty. “Everything is interacting with everything else, in really hard-to-predict ways. And the important thing is to use that complexity to your advantage, to make it hard for your opponent,” he told me.
Dougherty and others have focused especially on systems that would force the Russian military out of its comfort zone – breaking up their huge ammunition depots and scattering them, making them far less efficient because of their inability to communicate between them. “When the Russians try to fix one problem they caused themselves, another problem arises,” Dougherty said. “You’re trying to create a thorny knot of dilemmas so every time they try to do something that makes their life better, it actually makes their life worse.”
There is a growing belief in western defense circles that if the West gave Ukraine some of the latest weaponry and tactics, they could turn the tide of war in weeks and spare hundreds, even thousands, of Ukrainian lives.
Mick Ryan, military strategist and retired Australian army major general, has been tracking many of these needs and described them to me as ranging from uniform artillery and armored vehicles, especially the M113 armored personnel carrier, to self-propelled artillery.
Ryan and Dougherty believe that the real needs are more sophisticated systems. “Electronics are becoming central to knocking the Russians off balance,” said Dougherty.
The ability to counteract and interdict any military equipment that involves electronic communication or GPS positioning would be central to any such mission – and without overstepping any national boundaries.
And then there are the armed drones that Iran is on the cusp of providing Russia – several hundred, according to Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan, including advanced models able to launch missiles in mid-flight. Russian President Vladimir Putin is in Iran this week, where he is likely to cement the deal.
“Counter autonomy systems to destroy Russian and Iranian drones will be vital,” said Ryan. “We need more of these anti-drone systems for Ukraine to degrade the Russian targeting for artillery, as well as deny them use of suicide drones. This is important. The ‘detection to destruction’ time flow is several minutes. We need to change this.”
“It just seems like in the Russian military there are pockets of competence surrounded by oceans of failure,” Dougherty concluded. The US must enable the Ukrainians to stamp out the pockets and leave the oceans.
So far there has been little evidence that the tide is turning quickly enough. The real and growing fear among Ukraine’s indomitable military is that they may be able to halt the advance, but not claw back much of the territory already seized. “The idea [in the West] seems to be that Russia should not win, but also not lose,” Ulrich Speck, a German foreign policy analyst told The New York Times.
But Ukraine’s war is fast becoming the West’s, and the sooner the American establishment recognizes the need to unleash the full power of its military ingenuity, the more rapidly Ukraine will be able to bring it to a successful end, without the risk of a single American life.
In that respect, it is unlike Afghanistan or Iraq or Vietnam. Still, Ukraine is becoming the West’s ultimate proxy war.