Troops assigned to Apache Troop prepare to reinforce an airfield seized during Exercise Steadfast Javelin II, on Sept. 6, 2014.

Troops assigned to Apache Troop prepare to reinforce an airfield seized during Exercise Steadfast Javelin II, on Sept. 6, 2014. 2nd Cavalry Regiment by Sgt. William Tanner

Ukraine’s Military Needs More Than Just Arms

Let’s not overstate how lethal arms can save Ukraine. Here’s how the US and Europe really can help develop a professional and capable force.

With the recent agreement in Minsk for a ceasefire in Ukraine, it may be tempting to put the brakes on assistance for the Ukrainian military. But given how brittle this agreement remains – as well as Ukraine’s long-term security needs – it is imperative not just that such efforts move ahead, but that the United States and Europe cooperate in doing so.

It’s important to recall why, and how, the U.S. has been supporting Ukraine militarily, and to place the narrow question of lethal assistance in context. For the past year, Ukrainian leaders have made clear that they want help to make their military become more capable and professional. And the U.S. has committed to help because Ukraine matters: it borders NATO, it has freely chosen a leadership who wants their country to be transatlantic, it has a long history of security cooperation with the U.S. and European partners, and it has worked alongside NATO in Afghanistan, Kosovo, and in counter-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa. 

That’s why the U.S. has been working to support Ukraine’s military in three ways.

First and most urgent, it continues to provide Ukraine assistance to meet basic needs for operations against Russian-backed insurgents. Washington was the first to respond to Ukraine’s requests for help, and with over $200 million committed, it remains by far the single largest donor. This support includes rations, medical supplies and (famously) blankets for deployed military forces, as well as vehicles, communications gear, night-vision goggles, helmets, body armor and surveillance equipment. 

These efforts have been criticized as too little and too slow. Yet what the U.S. has committed to Ukraine so far is exponentially more than it provided in the previous decade combined. The U.S. spent less than $10 million for Ukraine in 2013. That said, Washington’s careful process and elaborate rules for sending military assistance make quick delivery frustratingly difficult.

Then there’s the question of providing lethal assistance. Yes, the time has come for Ukraine to receive critical capabilities like Javelin anti-tank missiles. But let’s not overstate what this would do. Such weapons would take care of some Russian-supplied armor, raising the costs on Moscow and boosting Ukrainian morale. Yet given the time it takes to procure and deliver such assistance, as well as the limited quantities under consideration, they would not alter the military balance fundamentally. 

Beyond immediate needs, the Ukrainian military requires help through training and exercises. Ukraine has a long history of hosting military exercises with the U.S. and European allies as NATO partner since the mid-1990s. But prior governments, especially under former President Viktor Yanukovych, never gave priority to NATO interoperability and starved the military of proper equipment and training. President Petro Poroshenko wants a Ukrainian military oriented toward the West, which is why the U.S. aims to begin training three battalions of Ukrainian forces next month and has set out to build a robust exercise program – such as last September’s “Rapid Trident” exercise, involving over 1,200 NATO troops on Ukrainian soil. 

Finally, and perhaps most important, the U.S. is working with Ukraine on reforming – and in some cases, rebuilding – its defense institutions. They need advice on how to spend their defense budget more wisely; plan for a new navy (which was swallowed by the Russians in Crimea); and grow and empower a generation of noncommissioned officers. Ukrainian defense leaders are quite candid that the biggest obstacle to reform is a military mindset that remains largely oriented toward the Soviet way of doing things, so they want assistance in fighting corruption and improving military education. 

For the past several months, American military and civilian advisers have started helping the Ukrainians develop a sustainable reform program, and are working toward a cohesive vision for the armed forces, border guard, national guard, and other security institutions. Ukraine is also endowed with a strong and advanced defense industrial base – in 2012, it was the world’s fourth-largest arms exporter – which is in danger of collapse due to the loss of the Russian market. They need assistance diversifying this industry, developing long-term investment plans and shifting away from reliance on their Russian customers.    

The U.S. and Europe have a strategic opportunity to anchor Ukraine into the transatlantic community. Ukraine’s needs remain urgent and the U.S. has steadily stepped up and should do more. Now, as we look to the long-term, others need to join. European neighbors can get basic supplies to Ukraine more rapidly than the U.S. More importantly, newer NATO allies who have experienced their own gut-wrenching defense reforms can be a more fertile source of expertise on similar reforms for Ukraine.

While there may not be a “military solution” to the current conflict, Ukraine’s future rests on having a military that is strong, professional, cohesive and capable – a military that can defend its borders and contribute to regional security. That’s only possible if the U.S. and Europe work together to help.