America Must Avoid Losing Its Weapons in Ukraine Like It Did in Afghanistan

America Must Avoid Losing Its Weapons in Ukraine Like It Did in Afghanistan

American-supplied Stingers went missing after the Soviet-Afghan war and ended up in the wrong hands. The same cannot happen with Ukraine.

 

As the one-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine passed, there are promising signs that the war may soon end.

In something of a Christmas miracle, President Vladimir Putin made an advent day announcement that Russia is “prepared to negotiate some acceptable outcomes” in regard to the war. Last month, China announced its peace plan for the conflict, and President Xi Jinping visited Moscow to explore the plan’s feasibility.

 

Both Russia and Ukraine are locked in a bitter stalemate, with no real changes on the battlefield in recent months. Now seems to be the perfect time for some sort of ceasefire, armistice, or similar agreement.

As the momentum begins to shift, it is time to think about what will happen after the war. Specifically, billions of dollars’ worth of American military equipment will remain in a country rebuilding from war with the possibility of weak institutions, a pro-Russian insurgency, and occupied territories.

To date, the United States has given some $34 billion in military assistance to Ukraine, 48 percent of a total of $48 billion dollars in combined humanitarian and financial aid. Of the total military aid, $12.7 billion have been provided in the form of weapons and equipment from existing Department of Defense stocks, along with $1.3 billion in grants and loans to purchase more defense articles.

It is right and just for the United States to support Ukraine. Putin’s war of aggression is one of choice, unlike anything seen in Europe since World War II. The United States has an obligation to support democracy and freedom where it is in such danger. However, it is also right for the United States to demand accountability for the weapons it sends to Kiev, something that Republicans in congress have been calling for.

What the United States should avoid is a repeat of the Soviet-Afghan War. The similarities are striking. There, the Soviet Union led a war of choice, and there, the United States supported brave Afgan freedom fighters up against similarly impossible odds. In that conflict, it was the U.S.-made FIM-92 Stinger shoulder-fired missile system that led to many Soviet helicopter losses and helped turn the tide of the war. At the time it was considered sensitive technology, and U.S. aid stipulated that in order to receive new missiles, expended ones had to be returned.

In the aftermath of that conflict, the United States launched a buyback program to retrieve the estimated 1,000 Stingers that it sent to Afghanistan. The $65 million program was largely seen as a failure. The missiles supplied to the Mujaheddin soon found their way to North Korea, Iran, Qatar, and Tajikistan.

In Ukraine, it is the American FGM-148 Javelin that is destroying Russian armor with a 93 percent kill rate. In November, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl stated that the Russians have “probably lost half of their main battle tanks” with many destroyed by the Javelin. Over 8,500 have been supplied to Ukraine, along with over 1,650 Stingers, 1800 Phoenix Ghost Tactical drones, and 2,500 in various types of missiles and rocket systems.

Yet very little is being done to monitor sensitive weapons. The U.S. embassy in Kiev, which has the U.S. government lead over accountability, isn’t fully staffed nor operational as a result of the war. There is no 1:1 swap for Javelins, as was the case for the Stingers sent to Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Ukraine is the poorest country in Europe, and is the second most corrupt nation on the continent after Russia. It is ranked 122nd in the world for corruption—a place it shares with Estwani, the last absolute monarchy in Africa. At the end of the Cold War, Ukraine was notorious for the illegal arms trade, a result of the massive former Soviet stockpiles in the country. From 1992 to 1998, the country lost $32 billion in military equipment through theft, lack of oversight, and discounted sales.

EUROPOL, the EU Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation, has stated that “the proliferation of firearms and explosives in Ukraine could lead to an increase in firearms and munitions trafficked into the EU via established smuggling routes or online platforms.” It added that the threat may be even higher at the end of the conflict. Weapons sent to Ukraine have already been found in underground networks in Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands.

What the United States should do is increase the number of on-site inspections. Only 10 percent of high-risk weapons have undergone such measures since U.S. aid began. These are conducted by the Defense Attaché and Office of Defense Cooperation at the U.S. embassy in Kiev.

In the case that such inspections would be too dangerous, the United States should stipulate end-use monitoring by the Ukrainians themselves. Pictures of serial numbers and geolocation tags could be uploaded to a database shared by the Ukrainians and the U.S. government.

Finally, a one-for-one swap should be mandatory for the most sensitive of U.S. weapons. When a Javelin missile is fired, for example, the fiberglass tube should be returned in order to receive a replacement missile.

Such standard accountability for the weapons sent to Ukraine is not a right-wing talking point; it is something that must continue to be taken seriously and planned for. Nothing lasts forever, and for the sake of millions, hopefully, the end of this war comes soon. We must be prepared for that eventuality and for what comes after.

Wesley Satterwhite works as a consultant at the U.S. Department of State. He holds a BS in Diplomacy & International Relations from Seton Hall University and a MA in Security Studies from Georgetown University. A U.S. Army Reserve Intelligence Officer, he served in U.S. Army Europe from 2019–2020.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.