|Lee: One way to try to glean an answer to that question is from any patterns in U.S. military support to date—and one I think we can see among them is that this support has often been measured in response to specific difficulties the Ukrainians have been experiencing.
For instance, initially, the U.S. provided Javelin and Stinger missiles, which aren’t particularly heavy types of equipment. A lot of artillery only came in April, when Ukraine was running low on it. Heavier missile systems, like HIMARS, which are much longer-range, only came in June, when disparities between Russian and Ukrainian munitions were becoming really apparent. But notably, when the U.S. did provide HIMARS, it emphasized it was not providing ATACMS, which are much longer-range still.
Now, there’s a lot going on behind these calculations, and there’s a lot more going on on the ground while they’re being made, so you can’t read the situation entirely decision-by-decision—whether it’s to provide HARM air-to-surface missiles last summer or, significantly, tanks now. Or for that matter, not yet to provide F-16 fighter jets. You can see the overall pattern, though, as intended to signal to Russia that the U.S. is very serious about supporting Ukraine’s self-defense—but not interested in escalating the conflict any more than it has to.
Valentine: That might suggest the U.S. is leaning somewhat toward the second priority—non-escalation. Are there any patterns pointing the other way?
Lee: There’s reporting that suggests the Biden administration has recently become less reticent to allow Ukraine to strike in Crimea. And Ukraine has done some of that, even if just with commercial drones that they’ve jerry-rigged to use as unmanned kamikaze weapons—but there’s some evidence suggesting a change of thinking in Washington and other NATO capitals about what kinds of weapons can and should be provided, and what the escalation risks really are.
That said, the context for this thinking is fluid. The fundamental reality of the war is fluid. The situation on the ground in Ukraine is fluid; Russia’s response to it is fluid; and so the relative weight of the United States’ divergent priorities is going to be fluid.
Before Moscow decided to mobilize the Russian population through involuntary conscription, for example, the manpower situation was favorable for Ukraine. But once the Kremlin mobilized its population with conscripts, it gave itself a considerable manpower advantage. And it’s an ongoing mobilization—and there just isn’t enough of a domestic backlash in Russia to threaten it. By all appearances, Moscow can keep it up.
So Ukraine may have gotten enough weapons to succeed in the circumstances they were in back in August and September, but once Russia mobilized and gave itself a much larger force—even if it’s not very well-trained—the question became whether the U.S. and the West needed to provide more and qualitatively stronger military capabilities in order for Ukraine to be able to overcome the change in Russian manpower. It’s just one illustration of how the priority of helping Ukraine defend itself is in a shifting tension with the priority of not escalating the conflict.
Leave a Reply