Despite alarming nuclear threats by Moscow, Nato has become bolder
March 27, 2023
The weapons supplied by the United States and Nato allies to Ukraine have grown in sophistication and capability since the Russian invasion 13 months ago. President Biden’s policy throughout has been driven by the need to avoid the risk of the war escalating into a regional conflict or, worse, a direct confrontation between Russia and Nato. “The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been a strategic failure but we’re dealing here with a nuclear power and we have to take that into account,” a senior US administration official said.
The statement by President Putin at the weekend that he proposed to deploy tactical air-launched nuclear weapons to Belarus underscored the potential dangers. However, despite alarming nuclear threats by Moscow, Nato has become bolder. The escalation threshold has been raised significantly, suggesting that Washington is prepared to call Putin’s bluff. As Ukraine demanded longer-range rockets, advanced tanks, modern air-defence systems and fighter aircraft, the alliance acquiesced, albeit in a measured and, in Kyiv’s eyes, protracted manner.
More than $32 billion of arms have been supplied by the US alone since February 24 last year. The most potent was the high mobility artillery rocket system (Himars), which doubled the range for shelling Russian targets. The US-dominated coalition of 54 countries has delivered or pledged more than 1,000 tanks and other armoured vehicles, 800 howitzers, 50 advanced multiple launch rocket systems and two million artillery shells.
The key questions now are: has the alliance’s endgame changed and have the military objectives become more ambitious?
The publicly stated objective is not the defeat of Russia per se. The strategy outlined on numerous occasions by Biden is to help Ukraine to defend itself against Russian aggression and to make sure that Kyiv is in as strong a position as possible militarily when the time arrives for a negotiated settlement.
That strategy now seems to have a tougher edge to it. “We want to see Ukraine win and retain the entirety of their territory,” the senior US administration official said. “The aim is to ensure Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence are secured and that would mean the recovery of territory occupied by the Russians. If the Russians withdraw, that would be seen as a defeat and that would be welcome. Realistically, this is not going to happen [in the near future]. We’ve seen new horrific strikes against the Ukrainian people, and Russia is showing no interest in negotiations. So our position is that we will continue to do everything we can to help Ukraine survive as an independent, democratic country.”
By the autumn, the Ukrainian army will have US Abrams M1A1 tanks to go with their German Leopards and British Challengers, as well as a fully operational Patriot anti-missile battery capable of shooting down Russian ballistic and cruise missiles.
The Ukrainian air force won’t have US F-16s because Washington is still worried about crossing the escalation line. But it will have more MiG-29s sent by Poland and Slovakia and perhaps the US will allow other Nato members to supply F-16s. This has yet to be decided.
This accumulation of advanced western weapons on the battlefield, alongside Russia’s continuing struggle to seize more territory and its appalling toll of dead and wounded, could be the decisive factors that bring this war to an end. However, there is one question no one in the West can answer: if Russian troops withdraw in humiliating defeat to their home garrisons, what would Putin do next?
Michael Evans is a former defence editor of The Times (1998-2010), and Pentagon correspondent in Washington (2010-13). He covered six wars in the field including Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. He wrote, and still writes as a freelance for The Times, on defence/military/intelligence/terrorism/war issues. His biggest scoops: the Real IRA rocket-propelled grenade attack on MI6 headquarters in 2000 and the recall of all Royal Navy nuclear-powered submarines after cracked pipes were found, also in 2000. Nominated for specialist writer of the year in British Press Awards in 2004 and also nominated in Amnesty International Media Awards in 2009.