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16th Apr 2024

Weapons to Ukraine? It may be too late

  • View through Ukrainian artillery gun sight in east Ukraine in 2014 (Photo: Christopher Bobyn)
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Ukraine sought fresh supplies of weapons from EU countries on Thursday (24 February) in the immediate aftermath of a Russian invasion amid concerns that shipments of lethal aid would be too late and could help spark wider conflict.

Ukraine's foreign affairs minister, Dmytro Kuleba, has repeatedly called on the European Union and Western allies to transfer weapons and military technologies to Kyiv.

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That has been met with a "no" in some member states.

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán said bluntly on Wednesday on Facebook that his country will not send soldiers or weapons to Ukraine.

The Belgian government took a similar position — although the Benelux country is expected to send protective equipment like helmets or binoculars for military forces.

Meanwhile, other countries such as Finland and Lithuania seemed more open to strengthening Ukraine's military power.

But weapons shipments may not be much of a quick fix for Ukraine in the face of an integrated and well-equipped invasion force like Russia's.

Dan Smith, director of the think tank Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said there was the practical concern, that if new equipment and weapons are provided to Ukraine forces, "it will take them time before they are able to use" them.

At the same time, a lack of a response from the West would make Ukraine feel completely "isolated and abandoned," said Smith, warning that such a stance could have a demoralising effect.

'Too late now'

"The problem is that considerably altering the stakes in this game is too late now," Gustav Gressel from the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) said Wednesday in a podcast.

Like Smith, he warned that giving Ukraine complex weapons systems, and filling in gaps in Ukrainian capabilities would require logistical preparations, technical adjustments and training — something that can take months and even years.

"We have wasted eight years discussing weapons deliveries while not doing so," he added.

Highlighting a sense that the time had already passed where the EU could really help fortify Ukraine was the comment, posted to Twitter on Thursday, from Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a former German defence minister once tapped to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor.

"I'm so angry at ourselves for our historical failure," she wrote, referring to a failure to deter Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Strategists in Europe had forgotten that "we have to be militarily strong enough to make non-negotiation not an option for the other side," she wrote.

Any arms export decisions are expected to be made bilaterally between Ukraine and EU member states, the experts said, and any decision on arming Ukraine in the current circumstances will be politically risky.

"If the EU members appear too distant and too weak in the way they support Ukraine, their image could be damaged for many years," said Yannick Queau, the director of the Brussels-based think tank Group for Research and Information on Peace and Security.

Yet delivering arms to the Ukrainian military forces could also be "really dangerous," he said.

Shipping weapons to Ukraine could raise the temperature even more between Russia and Nato and, besides, the weapons could end up in the hands of Russian forces, Queau added.

The Baltics

Asked if Russia could use its nuclear capabilities, Smith said that there was always a risk but "this is very unlikely".

Those weapons are more of a deterrent to the West than anything else.

"Russia uses its nuclear power in order to avoid any direct involvement from Nato in Ukraine," Queau said.

Moreover, both Russia and Nato had the incentive to avoid a direct military confrontation precisely because that would invite the kind of escalation that made nuclear conflict more likely, he said.

Nonetheless, he said, Nato had to strengthen the borders of Poland, Romania and the Baltic states.

As for Britain, it pledged this week to provide military support to Ukraine in the coming days, including "defensive weapons and non-lethal aid." The UK had already started supplying Kyiv with anti-armour defensive and anti-tank weapons in mid-January.

Washington, for its part, has also sent at least two shipments of military aid, including weapons and ammunition to Ukraine.

This article was updated on 25 February to add a reference to Lithuania as one of the countries open to sending additional support to Ukraine

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