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Key point: Ukraine has received a lot of help from America and NATO, which makes it a formidable fighting force.
Ukraine and the Russian-backed separatist forces of Donetsk and Luhansk remain locked in a shooting war that, since 2014, has claimed an estimated thirteen thousand Ukrainian lives and displaced more than two million others.
The Ukrainian armed forces entered the Donbass conflict in a state of decrepitude; in the words of Ukrainian General Viktor Muzhenko, as âan army in ruinsâ. Kiev faced two main challenges: Ukraine sold or downgraded much of its vast but aging Soviet military heritage during the 1990s and 2000s; and the Ukrainian army suffered from poor training, widespread corruption and declining morale.
With the help of military advisers from the United States and NATO, Ukraine has made considerable progress in resolving this latter problem in recent years; although much remains to be done, the Ukrainian army is slowly taking the form of a centralized professional fighting force.
The same cannot, however, be said of Ukraine’s difficult path towards modernizing military equipment. Congress has so far approved two deadly Ukraine aid plans, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is expected to request additional military aid at his next summit with President Donald Trump.
What does Ukraine need, what is it asking for and what has it achieved so far?
Staggering price tags and congratulatory press headlines belies an utterly troubling reality: US military aid to Ukraine has been strategically, and even tactically, inconsequential.
The bulk of previous military aid shipments consisted of small arms, anti-ECM (electronic countermeasures) technology, and various personnel equipment such as night vision goggles. These are all important tools in themselves, but not enough to guarantee Ukraine’s success in recapturing separatist-held Donbass regions, let alone repelling a hypothetical Russian military invasion west of the Donbass. . Experts agree that the centerpiece of the previous deadly $ 250 million aid package, the Javelin anti-tank missiles, is “mostly symbolic” due to the shortage of heavy armor operated by separatist forces in Donetsk and from Luhansk. Even more symbolic is Congress’s current plan to provide Ukraine with portable surface-to-air missile launchers: the separatists do not have fighter jets and the Russian Air Force cannot conduct any. military operations in Donbass airspace without triggering an international crisis that would increase the chances of direct Western intervention.
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The Washington-Kiev military relationship finds itself entangled in a catch-22 situation: whether the objective of lethal American aid is to change the balance of power in the Donbass or to prepare Ukraine to resist on its own a full-fledged Russian military offensive, then many more drastic measures are needed, however, these measures would only invite Russia to escalate and thus aggravate Ukraine’s security interests. It is for this reason that Ukraine is unlikely to receive strategically significant military aid, such as the Patriot missile system that Kiev sought to purchase early last year.
There are, however, pragmatic military reforms that the Ukrainian army can implement in the short term to better position itself in the Donbass war. Main battle tanks (MBTs) like Ukraine’s T-84 and T-80 are unwieldy given the urban nature of the conflict, but there is a clear operational rationale to replace the bloated and aging roster of more. of 800 BMP-2 from Ukraine by a smaller force of modernized heavy infantry fighting vehicles. Ukraine has reportedly taken steps in this direction with its upcoming BMP-1UMD, an evolution of the Soviet BMP-1 with digitized controls, a German-made engine and a revamped weapon suite. Meanwhile, a more robust network of counter-battery radars and modern transport vehicles can mitigate the impact of separatist artillery attacks.
Future lethal aid programs would reflect a more realistic view of Ukraine’s military needs if they were based on these kinds of practical concerns, rather than on niche missile launchers that may never see the light of day.
Mark Episkopos is a frequent contributor to The National Interest and is a research assistant at the Center for the National Interest. Mark also holds a doctorate. studying history at the American university. (This article first appeared in 2019 and is republished due to reader interest.)
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