By Max Boot
June 13, 2022
The Washington Post
The battle of Donbas — with momentous implications for the future of Ukraine and the entire postwar world — is poised on a knife edge.
The Ukrainians are resisting bravely, but they are suffering terrible casualties and slowly losing ground. They are able to fire only 5,000 to 6,000 artillery rounds a day, compared with 50,000 rounds a day from the Russians. The Ukrainians are running out of ammunition for their old Soviet artillery, and they don’t have enough Western artillery tubes to make up for the shortfall.
I am reminded of the old poem about how “for want of a nail a shoe was lost,” then a horse, then a rider, then a battle, then a kingdom. We cannot afford to see Donbas lost for want of artillery shells.
If Russian dictator Vladimir Putin captures this region, after having already secured a land corridor from Crimea to the Russian border, he will hold roughly a fourth of Ukraine, including its industrial heartland and most of its Black Sea coast. The Ukrainian economy is already in dire shape (estimated to shrink by 45 percent this year). Putin will then be in a position to further squeeze the rump state, while preparing a final offensive to finish it off.
Even a limited Russian victory will send a dangerous signal to the world that the West is weak and aggression pays. We must send lots more aid to Ukraine now to avert the loss of Donbas and to enable a counteroffensive to retake ground already occupied, but not yet fortified, by the invaders.
The most obvious Ukrainian need is for more artillery tubes and shells. The Biden administration has already provided 108 M777 155mm howitzers and more than 220,000 artillery rounds. More recently, it promised to send four High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (Himars) and ammunition with a maximum range of roughly 45 miles. That is wholly insufficient; even the 220,000 rounds would not last five days at current rates of use.
The West should be sending hundreds of howitzers and multi-launch rocket systems, thousands of rockets and hundreds of thousands of artillery rounds. This should include Excalibur GPS-guided rounds for the M177 (range: 24 miles) and Army Tactical Missile Systems for the Himars (range: 186 miles). Those longer-range munitions would enable the Ukrainians to target Russia’s artillery, rockets and supply lines without risking their new weapons close to the front lines. Of course, it will take time to train Ukrainians on these systems, but they have shown they are fast learners.
Ukraine is also in desperate need of more aircraft to stop Russian airstrikes and to mount its own attacks on Russian ground formations. Biden made a serious mistake in March when, because of overblown fears of Putin’s reaction, he refused to facilitate the transfer of Poland’s MiG-29 fighter jets. But it’s not too late to rectify that blunder.
While the MiG-29s would still be useful, in general we should be transitioning Ukraine to NATO equipment such as MQ-1C Gray Eagle drones, F-16 fighter jets, A-10 “Warthog” ground-attack aircraft and Patriot air-defense systems. The Gray Eagle, capable of carrying Hellfire antitank missiles, is a much larger drone than the U.S. Switchblades and Turkish TB2s that Kyiv has been receiving. The A-10, designed to withstand ground fire, would be perfect for pulverizing Russian artillery. The F-16 would allow the Ukrainians to shoot down more Russian warplanes and bomb Russian troops. The Patriot system could shoot down not only aircraft but also missiles.
The immediate objection is that Ukraine doesn’t have personnel trained to operate these systems. Well, if we had started a crash course back in March, that problem might have been fixed. It’s imperative to start training Ukrainians as soon as possible.
In the meantime, a stopgap can be employed. Ukraine already has foreign volunteers fighting in its ground forces. Why not ask for foreign volunteers or contractors to operate and maintain F-16s, A-10s, Gray Eagles and Patriots?
There is ample precedent for such a move. In 1941, Nationalist China bought U.S. P-40 fighter aircraft and set up the American Volunteer Group, better known as the Flying Tigers, to operate them. The Flying Tigers, composed of former U.S. military personnel led by Claire Chennault, helped save China from Japanese invasion.
Ukraine has millions of volunteers willing to risk death to defend their homeland. What it doesn’t have is enough weapons to arm its fighters. There is no excuse for this shameful failure. The nations imposing sanctions on Russia account for 65 percent of global GDP; Russia accounts for less than 3 percent. Russia cannot be allowed to outproduce Ukraine’s allies in armaments.
Don’t worry about depleting our stockpiles; we can always produce more later. And don’t worry about provoking Putin; nothing would be more provocative than a Ukrainian defeat. We have a strategic and moral imperative to step up now to help Ukraine prevail in its fight for freedom. It is our fight, too.