The right path — the complexities of transporting lethal aid to Ukraine

  • Themes: Russia

Shipping arms to Russia’s enemy is not without risk, but examples from history show that it is both possible and the right thing to do.

A Ukrainian serviceman rides in an armoured vehicle near Donetsk September 2, 2014. Credit: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo.
A Ukrainian serviceman rides in an armoured vehicle near Donetsk September 2, 2014. Credit: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo.

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in the early morning hours of the 24th of February crushed peace in Europe under Russian boots. But now that the West is willing to send military aid to the Ukrainians, it finds it increasingly difficult to do so without directly engaging Russian forces.

The West, and Europe in particular, has responded to Putin’s aggression with a resolve that is unprecedented in the post-war era. Germany especially has made the most astonishing u-turn as its chancellor sent 500 Stinger missiles and 1,000 anti-tank weapons to Ukraine despite a long-standing policy not to deliver weapons into active conflict zones. These types of weapons could be vital in the Ukrainian struggle against the Russian onslaught. As lightweight, shoulder-fired weapons, both types are mobile and can be fired from almost anywhere. Stingers are comparatively easy to use and very effective against low-flying airplanes, helicopters and drones. The Panzerfaust 3, a successor of its famous Second World War-era ancestor, fires rockets that can penetrate the thick steel plates of armoured vehicles while avoiding the backblast of many similar weapons. It can therefore be fired even from inside buildings, which will make it effective in street fighting in Ukrainian cities.

Other European countries have also stepped up to the plate. Sweden’s Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said her country would send 5,000 AT4 anti-tank weapons as well as field rations, helmets and body armour. This will be the first time Sweden has supplied weapons to a country locked in armed conflict since 1939 when it supported Finland against the invasion by Soviet Russia. The UK, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Czech Republic are also among the many European countries to send weapons and supplies.

The UK, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Czech Republic are also among the many European countries to send weapons and supplies. The UK began sending arms to Ukraine especially early, with the shipment of light anti-armour defensive weapon systems in mid-January. Since then, the UK has sent 2,000 anti-tank missile launchers and is acting as a point of contact for other nations wishing to send arms to Ukraine, according to Edward Ferguson, the British Embassy in Washington’s defence advisor.

Ukraine’s defences are further bolstered by an unprecedented 500 million euros directly from the EU for arms and other aid. The White House has also asked Congress for 1.3 billion dollars specifically for weapons shipments.

Collectively, the West is sending tens of thousands of items to Ukraine, including weapons, ammunition and other military supplies. But since Russia mostly controls the airspace over Ukraine, arms to the Ukrainian military can no longer be flown in without posing a direct challenge to Russian air supremacy.

Land routes too are fraught with logistical, political and military danger. Hungary, for example, has made it clear that no lethal weaponry will pass through its territory. Its Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó explained, ‘the reason for making this decision is that such deliveries might become targets of hostile military action.’ Slovakia and Romania are alternatives, but both share mountainous terrain with Ukraine, making the logistics difficult.

Poland has since emerged as the main logistical hub for Western military support. Its Rzeszów-Jasionka airport lies close to the Ukrainian border and US military forces have already moved into the G2A Arena opposite. European arms shipments can be flown there or shipped overland and are gathered in the region for Ukrainians to pick up and haul over the 330-mile-long border. From there, ‘two main routes remain inland: one near the border to Belarus, the other a little further to the south,’ as Ed Arnold, Research Fellow for European Security at the Royal United Services Institute, explained to Deutsche Welle.

So far this system has worked reasonably well to keep Ukraine supplied. However, log-jams at the border, tracks of refugees moving in the other direction and the increasingly tense situation in Ukraine are beginning to cause supply problems. Large cities such as Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, Chernihiv, Sumy and Kyiv itself are being surrounded by Russian forces and might soon be cut off, making it vital to get supplies to them while routes are still open. There are fears that they will soon run out of ammunition as well as food and other supplies.

Another danger lies in the fact that Russia is of course aware that Western weapons are being sent to Ukraine and has responded with further threats and escalation. Maria Zakharova, a spokesperson of the Russian Foreign Ministry, said she was shocked that ‘once again, as many times in history, weapons coming from German soil will be directed against Russian soldiers’ and that this summons ‘the ghosts of not a cold war, but the most hot war.’ Putin himself has also advised neighbouring countries ‘not to escalate the situation’ and threatened that ‘actions’ may ‘arise in response to some unfriendly actions against the Russian Federation.’

In order to avoid supply lines being targeted by Russian forces, many new and smaller routes have been established at undisclosed crossing points at the Ukrainian border. For security reasons those involved are tight-lipped about the details. But the German Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht told Deutschlandfunk that she was confident they would continue to operate. ‘We have ways of transportations, the channels are open. Our weapons are on their way, and we are not talking about days but hours.’

If past examples of the West’s attempt to counter Russian expansion are anything to go by, Lambrecht and her colleagues need to be prepared to keep such clandestine supply operations alive and flexible for a long time. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the US, Britain, Turkey and others also attempted to keep the Afghan Mujahideen insurgents supplied without direct interaction between their forces and the Russians, but it took years to wear down Russian resolve. Money and weapons were then largely funnelled through Pakistan, which helped deliver them directly to seven Islamist factions in Afghanistan itself. Through this means of transportation, billions of dollars worth of aid and military equipment was delivered into the hands of enemies of Russia without Western forces directly engaging with Soviet ones. The strategy eventually worked. Combined with economic and political sanctions, the war in Afghanistan became too costly for the Soviet Union which withdrew its last troops from there in 1989.

Of course the situation in Ukraine today is very different from Afghanistan in the 1980s. Western money is not funnelled into the hands of warring Islamic factions who are fighting a guerrilla war against the Soviet Empire. It is by no means a neat and direct analogy. But the principle that powerful military support can aid the numerically weaker side in an armed conflict to make the undertaking unfeasible for the aggressor in the long run stands – as does the lesson that this can be done without provoking a direct confrontation between the West and Russia.

The shipments of arms to Ukraine, and how this transportation is organised presents a larger risk. As Western logistics move closer to the Ukrainian border, Russian troops move further west within Ukraine. Putin is also becoming visibly more tense about Western intervention. These factors make a clash between NATO and Russia more likely even if neither side wants this to happen. But that is a risk the West needs to accept and past examples show it can be done effectively. Helping Ukraine with weapons may be dangerous but it is the right thing to do.


Katja Hoyer