Inside the U.S. Effort to Arm Ukraine

 Inside the U.S. Effort to Arm Ukraine

Even as another seventy-two systems arrived—along with dozens of nato-compatible howitzers from France and Germany—Ukrainian generals estimated that Russian artillery pieces outnumbered Ukraine’s by seven to one; each day, Russian forces were shooting some twenty thousand shells, pummeling cities such as Severodonetsk and Lysychansk. Zelensky said that, in June, as many as a hundred Ukrainian soldiers were being killed every day. It was the most difficult moment in the war for Ukraine, with Russia—fitfully and at great cost to its own forces—blasting through Ukrainian defenses and capturing territory one meter at a time.

Washington encouraged Ukraine to rely on judicious planning and the efficiency of Western weaponry rather than try to outshoot the Russian military. nato had chosen a similar strategy in the latter stages of the Cold War, when it found itself with far fewer tanks and artillery than the Soviet Union. “We told the Ukrainians if they try and fight like the Russians, they will lose,” the senior Defense Department official said. “Our mission was to help Ukraine compensate for quantitative inferiority with qualitative superiority.”

Ukraine has a fleet of reconnaissance drones and a loose network of human sources within areas controlled by the Russian military, but its ability to gather intelligence on the battlefield greatly diminishes about fifteen miles beyond the front line. US spy satellites, meanwhile, can capture snapshots of troop positions anywhere on earth. Closer to the ground, US military spy planes, flying along the borders, augment the picture, and intelligence intercepts can allow analysts to listen in on communications between Russian commanders. Since the invasion, the US and other Western partners have shared a great deal of this information with Ukraine. Mykola Bielieskov, a defense expert at the National Institute for Strategic Studies, in Kyiv, said, “That’s a major field where the US is helping us.”

One evening in April, at an intelligence-coordination center somewhere in Europe, Ukrainian military officers asked their American and nato counterparts to confirm a set of coordinates. This had become a common practice. Ukrainian representatives might ask for verification of the location of a Russian command post or ammunition depot. “We do that, fair game,” the senior Biden Administration official said. In some cases, US intelligence and military officers provide targeting information unsolicited: “We do let them know, say, there’s a battalion moving on Slovyansk from the northwest, and here’s roughly where they are.” But, the official emphasized, Ukrainian forces choose what to hit. “We are not approving, or disapproving, targets.”

The Biden Administration has also refused to provide specific intelligence on the location of high-value Russian individuals, such as generals or other senior figures. “There are lines we drew in order not to be perceived as being in a direct conflict with Russia,” the senior US official said. The United States will pass on coordinates of a command post, for example, but not the presence of a particular commander. “We are not trying to kill generals,” the senior Biden Administration official said. “We are trying to help the Ukrainians undermine Russian command and control.”

Still, Ukraine has so far killed as many as eight generals, most of them at long range with artillery and rocket fire. The high death toll is partially a reflection of Russian military doctrine, which calls for top-down, hierarchical operations. In most cases, mid-ranking Russian officers and enlisted soldiers are not empowered to make decisions, creating a need for generals to be positioned closer to the front. “They were depending on them to control and direct troops,” the US military official said. “It’s a huge operational catastrophe.”

“I know they should be invited to our house next, but can’t we just give them the cash equivalent and call it even?”

Cartoon by Teresa Burns Parkhurst

The Ukrainian request in April concerned the suspected location of the Moskva, a Russian naval cruiser and the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet. Could US intelligence confirm that the ship was at a certain set of coordinates south of the Ukrainian port city of Odesa? The answer came back affirmative. Soon, officials in Washington began to see press reports that the ship had suffered some sort of explosion. On April 14th, the Moskva disappeared into the Black Sea.

Kyiv said that two Ukrainian-made Neptune anti-ship missiles, fired from onshore near Odesa, had hit the Moskva—a statement that was confirmed by US intelligence agencies. Russia never admitted that the strike took place, instead blaming an onboard fire and stormy seas for the loss of the ship. Some forty Russian sailors are reported to have died.

After the arrival of the M777s, the Ukrainian Army increasingly shared information with the US about the condition of its weaponry on the battlefield, something it had not always been eager to do. Reznikov described it as a “mirror reaction” to Washington’s initial approach to the war. “You see they don’t trust you with serious weapons,” he said, “so why should you trust them?” But, as the US and other Western powers increased their commitments, the relationship improved. According to Reznikov, “When we received one package of assistance after another, and we could see there was a real desire to help, it allowed us to come to an agreement and reach a genuine dialogue.” A Western diplomat in Kyiv told me, “It’s a common story here. You can be incredibly wary, until you’re not. Then you become trusting and open.”

When the US military carries out operations with a partner force, such as a fellow nato member state, it coordinates battle movements on a common operational picture, or COP, a single digitized display showing the location and composition of forces. “We don’t quite have that with Ukraine,” the military official said. “But it’s close.” Ukrainian commanders feed information to the US military, which allows for an almost real-time picture of its weaponry in Ukraine. “These days we know similar information about what we have given to Ukraine as we know about equipment in our own military,” the official said. “How many artillery tubes are functioning, what’s down for maintenance, where the necessary part is.”

In May, Ukrainian artillery crews, using M777s along with some Soviet-era systems, fired on a large contingent of Russian forces that was trying to cross a pontoon bridge on the Siverskyi Donets River. Intelligence provided by the US appeared to allow the Ukrainians to identify the moment of the Russian column’s crossing. It was one of the single biggest losses for the Russian Army since the war began. Dozens of tanks and armored vehicles were destroyed, left charred along the river’s swampy banks, and as many as four hundred Russian soldiers were killed.

For months, Ukraine had one US weapons system at the top of its wish list: the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS. Whereas the M777 can hit artillery pieces, troop formations, tanks, and armored vehicles at what is known as tactical depth, around fifteen miles, HIMARS can reach an entirely different target set: ammunition depots, logistics hubs, radar systems, and command-and-control nodes, which tend to be located considerably farther behind enemy lines. The HIMARS system is mounted on a standard US Army truck, making it able to “shoot and scoot,” in military parlance. Colin Kahl, the Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy, has described HIMARS as the equivalent of a “precision-guided air strike,” delivered from the back of a truck.

The Ukrainian military could only take advantage of the HIMARS‘ extended range if its soldiers had intelligence on where to strike. “Precision fires and intelligence are a marriage,” the US military official said. “It’s difficult to have one without the other.” The dilemma for the Biden Administration was not whether to give HIMARS to Ukraine, but which munitions to send along with them. Each system can carry either a pod with six rockets, known as GMLRSwith a range of forty miles, or one surface-to-surface missile, or ATTACKS, which can reach a hundred and eighty miles. “It’s not HIMARS that carries a risk,” the Defense Department official said. “But, rather, if it was equipped with long-range missiles that were used to strike deep in Russian territory.”

Putin is extremely paranoid about long-range conventional missile systems. The Kremlin is convinced, for example, that US ballistic-missile defense platforms in Romania and Poland are intended for firing on Russia. Even if Ukraine agrees not to use HIMARS to carry out strikes across the border, the mere technical capability of doing so might prove provocative. “We had reason to believe that ATTACKS would be a bridge too far,” the Defense official said.

The battlefield realities inside Ukraine were another determining factor. “The imperative was ‘What does Ukraine need?’ ” the Defense official said. “Not what they are asking for—what they need. And we do our own assessment of that.” The Biden Administration asked for a list of targets that the Ukrainian military wanted to strike with HIMARS. “Every single grid point was reachable with GMLRS rather than ATTACKS,” the Defense official said.

There was one exception: Ukraine expressed a more ambitious desire to launch missile strikes on Crimea, which Russia uses for replenishing its forces across the south and which is largely beyond the reach of GMLRS. During the war-game exercises held over the summer, when the possibility of ATTACKS came up, it was clear that Ukraine wanted them to “lay waste to Crimea,” the Defense official said. “Putin sees Crimea as much a part of Russia as St. Petersburg. So, in terms of escalation management, we have to keep that in mind.”

In multiple conversations, US officials were explicit that the HIMARS could not be used to hit targets across the border. “The Americans said there is a very serious request that you do not use these weapons to fire on Russian territory,” the Ukrainian military official said. “We said right away that’s absolutely no problem. We’ll use them only against the enemy on the territory of Ukraine.” As with other weapons platforms, there is no technical mechanism to ensure compliance. Officially, the US has signaled that all Ukrainian territory illegally occupied by Russia since 2014—not only that which it has taken since February—is fair game for HIMARS strikes. “We haven’t said specifically don’t strike Crimea,” the Defense official told me. “But then, we haven’t enabled them to do so, either.”

“We might not have any worshippers, but we’re still a viable intellectual property.”

Cartoon by Emily Flake

The first batch of HIMARS appeared on the battlefield late in June. Within days, videos circulated of Russian equipment and ammunition depots outside Donetsk exploding in clouds of fire and smoke. Reznikov announced that the military had used HIMARS to destroy dozens of similar Russian facilities. In response, the senior Biden Administration official said, Russian forces “have had to adjust their tactics and maneuvers,” moving command posts and munitions depots out of range—which also diminishes their utility in battle. “They are very mindful of the presence of HIMARS,” the official said.

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