The Battle for Ukraine: Why American Military Support Can Tip the Balance

NLAW Ukraine
February 20, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Europe Tags: RussiaUkraineU.S. CongressMissile DefenseAirforce

The Battle for Ukraine: Why American Military Support Can Tip the Balance

Ukraine’s recent setbacks are not evidence of a lack of resolve but rather Western foot-dragging in supplying Kyiv with the weapons it needs. 


Members of Congress currently delaying a military aid package to Ukraine would do well to consider two recent events. They should also consider that Ukraine’s defense effort against Russian aggression retains a good chance for eventual success on condition that the country’s Western partners provide appropriate weapons. 

The first event is the induced death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in a hard regime prison north of the Arctic Circle. Formerly, the Kremlin denied responsibility for political murders committed or attempted abroad, such as the poisoning of Aleksander Litvinenko and Sergei Skripal in the UK. Within Russia itself, staged “investigations” were launched after the assassinations of Anna Politkovskaya and Boris Nemtsov. But Navalny’s case illustrates the “in your face” nature of the latest murder by the Putin regime. The foreboding symbolism of the Stalin-era prison designed to break political prisoners will not be lost on the Russian public. At the same time, the Putin regime felt confident enough to flout its disregard for basic humanitarian principles before the international audience. 


The second event was the Kremlin’s threat to nuclearize outer space and attack Western communication satellites. The danger of the nuclearization of space by a regime willing to wantonly murder oppositionists and conduct a genocidal war is obvious. The two events together plainly show Russia’s continuing threats to the international legal order and the futility of some sort of political compromise. The surest way to remove the threats is to help Ukraine prevail in its war of self-defense.

Developments on the Ukrainian front were witnessed against those Western figures who asserted that a military stalemate had been reached. Instead of supplying Ukraine with more weapons, goes their argument, Kyiv and the West should recognize the “reality” and permanence of Russia’s territorial gains in Ukraine. The main rationale for this view is the failure of the Ukrainian army to achieve a breakthrough in its 2023 summer offensive.

However, the offensive’s failure was not due to poor performance by the Ukrainian army but simply the lack of sufficient and suitable weapons—long-range missiles and F-16 fighter planes—owing to Western complacency and political foot-dragging. The weapons delivered were only a small fraction of the quantities promised.

Naysayers are also wrong to think capturing territory is the best criterion for combat success. In fact, the Ukrainian strategy emphasizes not the re-acquisition of territory but the destruction of the enemy’s military personnel and logistical and industrial capacity. In fighting a long defensive action at the Bakhmut “meat grinder” on the eastern front, the Ukrainians chewed up the Russian mobilization cohort of last winter. This meat grinder has just been repeated on an even larger scale at nearby Avdiivka, where President Zelensky said the kill ratio was one Ukrainian soldier to seven Russians, although this cannot be independently confirmed. In light of such losses, it is not certain that Russia will be able to mobilize its ostensible “millions” of draft-age males.

At the same time, the Ukrainians are achieving notable successes in Crimea and adjacent areas, where the Russian air defenses have been seriously compromised, and one-third of the Russian Black Sea Fleet (BSF) has been sunk or made inoperational. These successes have been accomplished mostly with domestically-produced drones and a few Neptune cruise missiles, with the aid of a modest number of British Storm Shadow and French SCALP air-to-ground missiles having only short range.

As is known, the Ukrainians have forced the BSF out of its main Crimean base at Sevastopol back to the Russian coast. Substantial grain shipments to needy countries have resumed from the port of Odesa. These naval successes were partly achieved by an elusive surface drone, the Magura V5, for which the BSF has not found an antidote. The Ukrainians have also developed prototypes of three underwater drones, the largest of which will be able to reach any point on the Black Sea. 

Recent strikes by Ukrainian drones on economic infrastructure as far north as St. Petersburg and as far south as Tuapse on the Russian Black Sea coast have shown that these drones have the range potentially to hit eighteen major oil refineries and energy installations in the European part of the Russian Federation, where the bulk of Russia’s oil refineries are located.

15 to 20 percent of Russia’s oil and exports move through the Black Sea. Even a partial blockade of oil exports would reduce the Russian military budget, while disabling several oil refineries could probably produce a crisis for Russia’s domestic economy. In view of these factors, the ability of Russia to maintain its arms industry at a high level over the long run would be in doubt.

However, Ukrainian drones cannot maintain a heavy payload and are too few in number to cause extensive damage to distant Russian targets, except for a few lucky hits. After four months of massive Russian attacks, the Ukrainian army was forced to evacuate its strongly fortified and geographically favorable position at Avdiivka. Insufficient artillery ammunition and lack of air cover handed Russia a tactical and propaganda victory.

In other words, the Ukrainian army’s withdrawal clearly demonstrates that Ukraine requires long-range missiles and planes. Furthermore, the Western policy of denying Ukraine the long-range missiles that could hit critical military targets in Russia and even within the occupied parts of Ukraine itself is difficult to fathom since it leaves Russia free to bomb Ukrainian targets without retaliation. This is a strategy designed to fail.

In the meantime, Ukraine has to give up hard-won positions on the battlefield and pays an unnecessarily high cost in civilian and army casualties.

Ukrainian soldiers can be killed only once. At current rates of supply, Ukraine is in danger of receiving enough weapons only after there will be no more troops left to use them. Therefore, the U.S. Congress should move quickly to reverse past political and strategic errors. Moreover, its electors should understand that threats to American security and economic interests could be averted by appropriate and timely aid to Ukraine, which that country has shown it can use to great effect.

About the Author

Dennis Soltys is a retired Canadian professor of comparative politics with a specialization in the former Soviet region.

Image: Creative Commons.