When President Joe Biden was asked recently whether the U.S. would provide F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine, his response couldn’t have been clearer.
“No,” he said.
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But does he really mean it?
Even if a decision to send F-16s does come soon, Ukraine is unlikely to stop pressing for other high-end weaponry. Other systems on Kyiv’s wish list include ATACMS — a long-range missile that can be fired from the already provided HIMARS launchers — and advanced offensive drones.
Ukrainians are now asking for an end to this pattern, arguing that the only way to bring the war to a close is to give the Ukrainian military everything it needs to win. They see the arguments against more ambitious military aid as excuses, if not something more nefarious.
“The pattern of stop-start arms transfers is because we are fighting enemy disinformation,” Hanna Hopko, a former member of the Ukrainian Parliament who now runs the International Center for Ukrainian Victory, told Grid in an email. “The need now is to think in terms of great power and great responsibility. We have to focus on the victory of Ukraine (defeating Russia faster), not on inflation, energy security, and poll numbers in western nations.”
The idea of a massive military aid package that would allow Ukraine’s armed forces to quickly go on the offensive and overwhelm Russian resistance certainly sounds more appealing than the slow-moving and bloody trench warfare that now seems to be the most likely scenario for the next few months of this war. But the “Big Bang” approach has drawbacks as well.
The Biden administration’s argument when it comes to Ukraine aid is that with each new system, it makes a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether the Ukrainians need the specific weapons, and whether the U.S. and its allies can afford to provide them.
In a recent press briefing, State Department spokesperson Ned Price told Grid, “These are discussions that we have with our Ukrainian partners to determine, in the first instance, what it is that they need. We then have these conversations between and among partners and allies to determine what it is that any given partner has and what would be appropriate for us to do.”
Ukraine’s needs have changed, U.S. officials say, because the war itself has changed. During a recent event sponsored by the Defense Writers Group, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told Grid, “It was a different fight a year ago, as small, decentralized teams of Ukrainians attacked Russian supply lines that are bogged down on a single road because of poor logistics, poor planning. Now we’re looking at much larger forces dug in and making all-out assault against Ukrainian forces.”
It’s doubtful that Ukraine’s battlefield needs had changed dramatically in less than a week; more likely, the political incentives — namely, giving German Chancellor Olaf Scholz the political cover he needed to provide the Leopard tanks — had become overwhelming.
From the beginning, the U.S. and other NATO countries have sought to balance the goals of helping Ukraine fight back with concerns about sparking a wider — and potentially nuclear — conflict.
But it’s also true that Washington’s comfort level with sending heavy weaponry has increased dramatically since the early days of the war.
Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Grid, “The Russians have laid down two red lines: One is no NATO troops in Ukraine, and the other one is no invasion of Russian territory. And the U.S. and NATO have respected those red lines. Tanks and Patriots and HIMARS and everything else don’t contravene those two red lines.”
Training and logistics
Another limiting factor in the pace of weapons deliveries to Ukraine may be the ability of the Ukrainians to absorb them.
Over time, Western nations have gradually provided more and more advanced weapons systems in hopes of breaking the stalemate. And, politically, each successive weapons system debate has become a sort of litmus test for the West’s willingness to support Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the gradual ratcheting-up dynamic may soon come to an end simply because — beyond fighter jets and long-range missiles — there aren’t many more weapons systems the West is holding back. After that, the question will not be what weapons the West is giving to Ukraine, but how many of them and for how long.
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