WASHINGTON — The operation to supply Ukraine with defensive weapons is straining allied supply chains, laying bare the potential for bottlenecks in lower-echelon but high-tech weaponry needed quickly at scale, according to British Defence Minister Ben Wallace.
“Even fairly handheld equipment, like Stingers or Javelins or NLAWS, are almost as bespoke as aircraft,” he told reporters in Washington on Tuesday, referring to a trifecta of Western anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons that Ukrainian forces have successfully used against Russian invaders.
With the production capacity of some of these weapons curtailed, dwindling munitions stocks present a kind of old-school conundrum that stands in contrast to the multibillion-dollar ships and aircraft normally considered pinnacles of modern war, Wallace said.
“I think it’s a really important lesson, and I think we need to all come together to work out how we’re going to deal with this,” he added.
Wallace shared his assessment of the war in Ukraine while in Washington to meet his U.S. counterpart, Lloyd Austin. Also on the agenda for the week was a huddle with trans-Atlantic defense leaders organized by the Munich Security Conference.
The British defense secretary said he doesn’t believe Russian leaders around President Vladimir Putin view Western weapons support to Ukraine as a game changer in their escalation calculus. “Because if the shoe was on the other foot, they’d be doing exactly the same thing,” he told reporters. “So what we definitely see is they’re not as agitated by lethal aid as you would think.”
Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine matters little to Russian generals, Wallace argued, as commanders throw evermore “cannon fodder” into the battle to make up for the Russian forces’ subpar technology and lack of joint fighting skills.
Economic punishment by the West, on the other hand, appears to hit Moscow harder because the effects are becoming evident for the population, potentially putting pressure on the government from within. “They’re more agitated by sanctions because you can’t hide that from your people,” Wallace said. “You can hide bodies; you can’t quite hide your inflation.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, told senators the Russian military appears to be settling in for a protracted fight, limiting combat to the Donbas and southern Ukraine only as a temporary tactic, The Guardian reported Tuesday.
Haines was speaking on Capitol Hill about worldwide threats confronting the United States. She said prospects for peace talks are grim at the moment.
“As both Russia and Ukraine believe they can continue to make progress militarily, we do not see a viable negotiating path forward, at least in the short term,” Haines said.
Likewise, Wallace said the war is progressing in an unpredictable way, with no way of knowing what an end game might look like. “Only President Putin can know where his off ramp is going to be.”
Worried about the war as a source of instability for global economics, China is unlikely going to get involved on Russia’s side, Wallace predicted. “I think probably China’s rather embarrassed by the behavior of Putin, like an inconvenient friend,” he said.
Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News. He is based in Cologne, Germany.