Over the past week, a number of high-ranking U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary nominee Ashton Carter, have hinted that support is growing among U.S. leaders for the transfer of lethal military equipment to Ukraine — a move Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has long called for from NATO countries. According to leaks and a report by the Atlantic Council, which heavily influences policymakers in Congress and the White House, Washington appears to be actively considering the idea and a decision may be reached within the next week. Other NATO countries such as Poland have also voiced interest in providing lethal aid to Ukraine.
Weapons and Equipment
Leaders often refer to the equipment under discussion as "defensive" weaponry for political purposes, but much of it is equally suited for offensive and defensive operations. Anti-tank weapons, a large arsenal of which Ukraine already operates, have been one of the most cited types of weapons that could be given to Kiev. A significant portion of the anti-tank weapons Ukraine owns are old and likely inoperable. Moreover, only a few effective weapons such as the 9K115-2 Metis-M, indigenous Skif missile and RPB-29 are in its stockpiles. If the United States or its NATO allies were to transfer Javelin anti-tank guided missiles or heavier crew-served TOW missiles to Kiev, it could give Ukrainian troops a credible capability against separatist and Russian heavy armor. Other equipment could include battlefield surveillance technology such as low- to mid-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles, armored transport vehicles and counter-battery radars that help pinpoint the source of incoming fire.
The Atlantic Council report highlighted the fact that many former Warsaw Pact countries that are members of NATO are ideally positioned to help Ukraine maintain its Soviet-era weapons. For example, Bulgaria, Greece and Slovakia all operate S-300 surface-to-air missiles and can give Ukraine spare parts to enhance the serviceability rate of its own S-300 batteries. With a sizeable defense industry and many Soviet-era weapons in operation, Poland has also emerged as a likely contributor. Poland's considerable strides toward transitioning to Western equipment make it an ideal supporter. The country itself is looking to transition its equipment toward NATO standards. In other words, Warsaw can provide weapons that Ukrainian troops already use as well as provide new NATO gear and experience with Western weapons.
In addition to lethal aid, there are many types of non-lethal equipment that would greatly enhance the Ukrainian military's capabilities. The United States already has been sending non-lethal supplies to Ukrainian troops, from bulletproof vests to MREs and night vision goggles. An influx of this type of equipment can determine success or failure on the battlefield by significantly enhancing the ability, survivability and confidence of infantry squads and platoons. Night vision equipment and encrypted communication devices can improve troops' situational awareness and ability to carry out operations at night. On a tactical level, the only drawback of these devices is the substantial amount of training required to use them effectively.
The Dangers of Conflict
If the conflict in eastern Ukraine is contained to the Donbas area and if Russia chooses not to send more forces, an infusion of NATO lethal and non-lethal aid could markedly improve Ukrainian troops' readiness and capability on the battlefield. However, no amount of equipment can make up for the Ukrainian military's key limitation: manpower. Low morale and draft evasion continue to shrink the already small pool of potential recruits that the military depends on. Many of the troops Ukraine does have are not sufficiently trained.
The provision of aid also carries with it an increased risk of Russian retaliation. If Moscow responds to NATO's lethal aid by sending more troops, Ukraine would not be able to defend against them on its own, even with better weapons. However, Russia would also have to calculate the risks of escalation, since such a move could elicit a further response from the United States. The rumors of the United States or NATO giving lethal equipment to Ukraine give Washington an important lever in its negotiations with Moscow that could discourage the Kremlin from making provocations. The United States will have to be cautious as it attempts to steer Russia toward a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine.