WASHINGTON — The recent decision by the Biden administration to send $125 million in military aid for Ukraine is a welcome site in Kyiv, but the country needs and deserves much more, according to a former chief adviser to Ukraine’s defense minister.
“It is clear that Ukraine is not unique among the list of countries who are supported by the U.S. government,” Oleksandr Danylyuk, now chairman of the Ukrainian Center for Defense Reforms think tank, said in a recent telephone interview from Kyiv. “But it is also clear that Ukraine provides a lot of security for the U.S.”
The package, announced March 1, included two Mark VI patrol boats as well as “counter-artillery radars and tactical equipment; continued support for a satellite imagery and analysis capability; and equipment to support military medical treatment and combat evacuation procedures,” per the Pentagon.
That marked the first military aid to Ukraine under the Biden administration, and more could be coming; there is another $150 million appropriated by Congress for the fiscal 2021 Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, but that money is gated off until the U.S. Defense and State departments jointly certify there has been “sufficient progress” made by Ukraine on military reform efforts.
Danylyuk, who has advised Ukraine’s government in modernizing its armed forces, particularly its special forces, argued two key points that make Ukraine worthy of increased aid. The first is that country’s 1994 decision to remove from its soil nearly 200 intercontinental ballistic missiles and nearly 2,000 nuclear warheads in exchange for a guarantee of sovereignty from Russia.
The second, and far more current, argument he made is that by taking on Russia in the Donbas and elsewhere, Ukraine is expending its own blood and treasure to protect U.S. allies like Poland and the Baltics, and ultimately America itself.
“Ukraine deserves much bigger support from a moral point of view and from a very practical point of view,” Danylyuk said. “No disrespect, but Ukraine deserves more than Egypt or Jordan.” Those two countries receive significant military aid from the U.S.
Specifically, Danylyuk said he would like to see the U.S have more high-level military-to-military interactions to discuss mutual tactical and strategic objectives.
Luke Coffey, an international affairs expert with the Washington-based Heritage Foundation think tank, believes relations between the U.S. and Ukraine will be easier under the Biden administration than during the last 18 months of the Trump administration, when arms support for Ukraine became tied up in the first impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.
“I think where we’ll see a change will be in terms of the rhetoric that’s used about Ukraine and its Euro-Atlantic aspirations in NATO and the European Union,” Coffey predicted. “But also I think we’ll see more funding and financial support” from the U.S.
While Coffey is skeptical there will be a shift toward major American military exercises in Ukraine, Ian Brzezinski, a European expert with the Atlantic Council, said such an expansion is needed, feasible and would be a strong sign of support for Ukraine.
“Right now, we basically do ship visits and tactical training for the military,” Brzezinski said. “What about sending a brigade or battalion into Ukraine for a few months? That would provide a higher-intensity level of engagement and training for the Ukrainians, and it would complicate Russian planning by demonstrating that one cannot ignore the risk of U.S. intervention in Ukraine in the event Moscow acts radically again.”
“The top officials of the Biden administration largely come from the Obama team. They’re seasoned, they have a new leader, but it’s not yet fully clear how their policies are going to differ from the Obama years. They need to articulate and demonstrate that they [are] less averse to conflict and will [be] more assertive in combatting aggression,” he added. “Some of their initial statements and actions are obviously useful in this regard but do not yet clearly distinguish the administration from the Obama years.”
Regarding the recently released military assistance package to Ukraine, Brzezinski said: “Clearly the Ukrainians need this, but there is more the U.S. can and should do.”
Equipment wish list
In terms of material items, Danylyuk said more air defense and anti-missile systems are needed. He specifically cited the Patriot and Tomahawk missiles as something Ukraine desires.
The Patriot makes sense on paper, as it would come heavily into play should Russia ever fully invade Ukraine, said Brzezinski. “The Russians are all about using missiles to shut down an adversary’s command-and-control structures, critical sensors, and logistical systems; that’s why Ukraine needs more robust air and missile defense capacities,” he said.
But he noted the level and type of missile defense capabilities the U.S. can and should provide would be in part determined by Ukraine’s capacity to afford and properly use those systems.
That same concern would exist for any high-end fighter aircraft — something Danylyuk said is another priority. The Ukrainian Air Force heavily relies on obsolete Soviet airframes, and “we need to replace them with something more modern,” he said.
When asked if Ukraine is interested in a fifth-generation fighter like the F-35, Danylyuk said the stealth fighter is on the list of air assets Ukraine would eventually like to have.
Updating Ukrainian air capabilities makes sense to Coffey, but Ukraine “shouldn’t try to be a peer-to-peer competitor with Russia in the skies.”
More directly, “there’s no way, in my opinion, that Ukraine should even remotely consider a platform like the F-35 right now,” Coffey said, given the unit cost and operational requirements for the advanced fighter. “For the type of threat that they face and are involved in right now, I don’t see how they could feasibly purchase F-35s.”
Instead, Coffey suggested Ukraine should look to alternatives for air power, including Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 unmanned systems that have proven effective against Russian equipment in Libya, in Syria and during the recent Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Danylyuk also said he would like to see more joint U.S.-Ukraine weapons systems development programs. “That could be very useful,” he said.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.