By Robert Czulda
Ukraine needs to be supplied with heavy weaponry.
Ukrainian defenders are usually depicted by media as mainly light infantry, armed with lethal yet mobile anti-tank systems. This image is as romantic but misleading. There is a good reason to do this, at least from the Ukrainian point of view – a war with Russia is presented as a clash between David and Goliath. Only David – weaker and doomed for a defeat – gains sympathy.
However, this is a false narrative – Ukraine has been relying mostly on heavy weaponry, such as artillery, armored vehicles and tanks. Without them, Ukraine would not be able to resist the aggressor for so long.
While Russia still has the ability to replace lost vehicles – although these capabilities are slowly depleting – Ukraine, which has weaker mechanized forces, does not have such comfort (especially now, when various Ukrainian heavy factories were either destroyed or damaged). For Ukraine, every tank and heavy artillery is now worth its weight in gold.
NATO member states should jointly supply Ukraine with heavy weaponry.
Obviously, the Ukrainian Army was not trained to operate tanks, artillery systems or armored vehicles of Western origin. Such trainings would take many weeks or even months. Therefore, the most feasible and logic idea is to supply Ukraine with equipment they already know and could start using straight after deliveries. Such weaponry can be still found both in the Balkans and Central-Eastern Europe.
We do not know exactly how large Ukraine’s losses in heavy equipment are. Kyiv – which is also understandable – does not provide information on this subject.
According to Oryx, Ukraine lost at least 501 vehicles: 185 were destroyed, 10 damaged, 37 abandoned, while 269 were captured by the enemy. Regardless of a real scale of loses, without deliveries of heavy arms (including munition and spare parts mainly for field repairs), Ukraine will not only be unable to carry out any counter-offensive that is necessary to recapture the lost territory, but ultimately will loose a war of attrition.
In other words: tanks, artillery and armored vehicles are crucial, if Ukraine wants to stand its ground.
Undoubtedly Ukraine has been depleting its armor strength, which is based on various variants of the T-64 tank (upgraded by indigenous industry). This is a child of the Soviet Union, but in fact it was designed and manufactured on the Ukrainian soil – by Kharkiv Morozov Machine Building Design Bureau.
Kharkiv is now an arena of fierce fights. Ukraine cannot be supplied with additional T-64s, since this model has never been used by any post-communist Central-Eastern European state.
It means that the most likely tank that Ukraine could get, would be the T-72, which exists in numerous variants (however they are inferior to Russian T-72B3 model). These tanks are still in used by several NATO states, such as Poland (which also has the PT-91 Twardy tank – this is a local development of the T-72M1), Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia.
Although their combat value is currently limited, even modest deliveries could increase combat capabilities of the Ukrainian Army (including their mobility).
The same applies to armored vehicles – Ukraine has several types, BTR-4s, BTR-80s and BTR-70s. Some of them could be found in North Macedonia or Slovakia. The most obvious vehicle, which is possessed by several NATO member states, is the BMP-1 tracked infantry fighting vehicle. They are still owned by Bulgaria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic (BVP-1 variant) or mainly Poland (the latter has roughly 1,000 vehicles, which are expected to be replaced in a near future by a locally designed AIFV, known as BORSUK/BADGER).
Ukrainian artillery, which is used excessively, could be reinforced too. Ukraine is, so far, quite successful in integrating UAVs with artillery – while the former detects targets, the latter are used to engage them from a safe distance.
Apart from towed artillery (such as D-30 or D-20), Ukraine has numerous self-propelled systems, including 2S1 Gvozdika, 2S3 Akatsiya, 2S7 Pion, 2S5 Giatsint-S, not to mention rocket artillery (BM-21 Grad, BM-27 Uragan or BM-30 Smerch).
While majority of these systems are not in stock among NATO member states, and thus they could not be delivered to Ukraine, some are – either still in service or in reserve.
For instance, 2S1s are still possessed by Bulgaria, Croatia or Poland. Most likely Ukraine still has enough artillery pieces (many pieces are in reserves), but lacks ammo. NATO could help Ukraine by facilitating transfer of proper munition.
A significant boost to Ukrainian warfighting capabilities would be air-defense systems, other than MANPADS, which are highly useful but have significant limitations.
According to some sources, the Pentagon has confirmed that there were “ongoing discussions” with NATO allies regarding “transfers of defenses capabilities to include long-range air defenses, that we know that they’re comfortable using”. The most likely supplier is Slovakia, which has the S-300 long range surface-to-air missile system. The same system is used by other NATO member states, such as Bulgaria and Greece.
According to some rumors, there are also discussions with Ankara, who owns the S-400 (an upgraded variant), but the system has never been introduced by the Turkish military into operational service.
By donating the S-400s to Ukraine, Ankara would harm its ties with Russia, but at the same time it would give Erdogan an opportunity to improve highly strained relations with NATO and particularly the United States. However, there is a significant problem – the Ukrainians have not been trained to use the S-400.
It is worth adding that reportedly the United States has already sent to Ukraine the 9K33 Osa (SA-8) highly mobile, low-altitude, short-range tactical surface-to-air missile system. Some units can be still found in Greece, Romania or Poland.
Such deliveries would possible under three conditions.
First, there need to be a secure land corridor between NATO and Ukraine (so far the Russian Army was unable to launch an offensive and cut it off).
Secondly, this should be a decision of all NATO member states – all partners need share a certain burden. While some states would donate their equipment – and in consequence they would reduce their defense capabilities and expose to Russian responses – other states would have to step in and first assist them by providing interim substitute capabilities and later by donating their own surplus equipment. There are also some good examples – both the Netherlands and Germany agreed to deploy their Patriot missile defense systems to Slovakia). Moreover, countries willing to donate its equipment, should be financially assisted by other NATO member states, who could then cover at least partial costs of new systems they would need to procure.
Thirdly, the United States must take more active role and become a real leader – this is widely expected by Central-Eastern Europe.
Both societies and governments are looking for more solid security commitments and assistance. The West, including the White House, cannot expect the most vulnerable NATO member states, located on a frontline with Russia – such as Poland, Slovakia or Romania – to unilaterally show acts of courage.
Let’s hope that a planned visit of President Joe Biden in Poland this Friday will meet expectations of the region.
Dr. Robert Czulda is an Assistant Professor at the University of Lodz, Poland. He is a former Visiting Professor at the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM) under a Fulbright Senior Award.
Dr. Czulda is an Alum of the Young Leaders Dialogue of the U.S. Department of State (2010– 2011), and has lectured at universities in Iran, Brazil, Indonesia, Ireland, Lithuania, Turkey and Slovakia, as well as the National Cheng-chi University in Taipei.
He is a freelance defense journalist as well and has published widely on Polish defense and related issues.
Dr. Czulda’s area of expertise is international security and defense.