What Ukraine Still Needs
In announcing the transfer to Ukraine of Bradley Fighting Vehicles, AMX-10RC combat vehicles, and Marder Fighting Vehicles—among the best infantry systems in the world—the American, French, and German governments have not only sloughed off another skin of self-deterrence and reinforced Western solidarity in support of Ukraine, they have added an important piece to the puzzle of armaments Kyiv needs to achieve its aim of driving the Russian invaders from its sovereign soil. But other critical pieces need to be put in place soon if the Ukrainians are to achieve the victory they so deserve this year.
What those pieces are is no mystery: not just fighting vehicles, but front-line, heavily protected Western main battle tanks, mobile air defenses, and logistics to defend and sustain a larger-scale counteroffensive campaign; longer-range artillery like the Army Tactical Missile System; and multi-role aircraft to suppress Russian air defenses and provide air cover and interdiction capabilities. That’s a lot of stuff, and it will require some months for the Ukrainians to master them and integrate them into a coherent combined-arms force. When they do, the whole will be more powerful than the sum of these many parts.
That the Ukrainian military will be able to do so is almost beyond question. While their operational acumen has been apparent since the first weeks of the war, many Western observers remain reluctant to acknowledge their logistical performance. Although there isn’t much open-source information on weapons systems rates of readiness, the Ukrainians have been able to generate good effects from a complete congeries of old Soviet and widely varied Western systems. The announcement this week that modern Western Sea Sparrow missiles—themselves a surface-to-air translation of a long-serving, radar-guided air-to-air missile—could be fitted to Ukraine’s Warsaw-Pact-issue “Buk” launchers is just the latest example of Ukrainian technical and tactical ingenuity. (If rumors are to be believed, some of the ingenuity in marrying Western munitions to Soviet platforms also comes from Ukraine’s NATO neighbors.) Sustaining such disparate weaponry, especially during the months of unceasing Russian bombardment, would be a huge challenge for the U.S. Army, let alone any current Western European force. Yet they have done it for nearly a year so far. There is no reason to think the Ukrainians won’t be able to digest modern Western weaponry. Of course, it would be preferable to have a more standardized order of battle, but that’s a matter for Ukraine’s post-war NATO integration.
Supplying the Ukrainians with this larger counteroffensive capability becomes more necessary as the battlefield is transformed through the winter. While there have been unceasing suggestions of both Russian and Ukrainian attacks through the winter, there are also reasons to be skeptical about the scale of this “winter war.” To begin with, the Russians almost certainly lack the forces and, most of all, the weaponry to conduct offensives. The hurling of Wagner Group riflemen at Bakhmut is more a case of using Ukrainian bullets to execute Russian jailbirds; arguably the Russian main effort has been directed toward building forward defenses to protect Crimea from a Ukrainian offensive southward from Zaporizhzhia. Obstacles only matter when covered by fire, so the Russians would be wise to concentrate artillery and mobile reserves there, not in Belarus or Luhansk. And the Russian army’s ability to transfer large formations from one front to another is a timely way is doubtful, partially thanks to the effects of Western-supplied artillery in Ukrainian hands. Russia’s winter war is probably a winter reset.
The Ukrainians have, throughout the conflict, demonstrated remarkable strategic patience, even as their capital, second city, and main Black Sea port hung by threads. If the transfer of armored vehicles is indeed an indicator of the long-awaited Western Zeitenwende, it’s all the more reason for Kyiv to gather strength to land the heaviest possible blow. The Ukrainians have many options, but it’s also clear the war cannot end without the surrender of Crimea. The peninsula defines both Ukrainian victory and Russian defeat.
Before any direct assault, the first step would be to lay closer siege to Crimea; that in itself will be a tough challenge. To be sure, Ukrainian strategy has apparently prepared for this, as the strikes on the Kerch Strait Bridge and periodic attacks on airfields and bases in Crimea demonstrate. But the Russians still hold significant chunks of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson oblasts and perhaps a dozen Russian battalion tactical groups remain on the peninsula. Further, any large-scale Russian probes in the north and east might force the Ukrainians to divert resources away from Crimea.
A Ukrainian advance to the neck of the peninsula would in itself be a huge public relations win for Kyiv, restoring the sense of momentum that the Kharkiv counterattacks produced in the fall. It would likewise be a big win for Joe Biden, Emmanuel Macron, and Olaf Scholz, bolstering Western support for military aid to Kyiv.
But further dramatic Ukrainian advances in any direction may be impossible—and in any case will be more costly in terms of materiel, ammunition, time, and lives—if Ukraine doesn’t receive more advanced weapons fast. As General Omar Bradley, namesake of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, wrote, “Where the objective is lost, the war is prolonged and the cost becomes infinitely worse.”