The West Must Give Ukraine the Weapons It Needs to Win

Wars are won or lost well behind the front lines. Allies should arm Ukrainians accordingly.

A photo of a Ukrainian soldier running through a trench
John Moore / Getty

For the past four months, people around the world have witnessed the macabre process of Russian forces making repeated assaults near the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut for only the tiniest of gains. By some counts, Russia has lost about five of its soldiers for every Ukrainian soldier lost—to say nothing of massive equipment losses. Although in theory a country can win a war by using its military forces to make forward assaults against an enemy’s forces, that’s just not a smart way to fight. Military technology long ago evolved to arm both sides in conflicts with extremely lethal weaponry, and any army that tries to approach this machinery head-on is likely to suffer major, and in some cases horrific, losses.

Far more effective is to weaken your opponent’s forces before they get to the battlefield. You can limit what military infrastructure they’re able to build, make sure what they do build is substandard, hamper their ability to train troops to operate what they build, and hinder them from deploying their resources to the battlefield. These steps are doubly effective in that they save your own forces while degrading the other side’s. Over the past two centuries, the powers that have emerged triumphant have been the ones that not only fought the enemy on the battlefield but also targeted its production and deployment systems—as the Union did by controlling the waters around the Confederacy during the Civil War and as the United States and Britain did from the air against Nazi Germany.

In light of such dynamics, the manner in which the West is supporting Ukraine’s war effort is deeply frustrating. Though NATO countries have a variety of systems that can target Russian forces deep behind their lines, recent aid has been overwhelmingly geared toward preparing Ukraine to make direct assaults against the Russian army. The most widely discussed forms of equipment—such as Leopard 2 tanks, Bradley armored personnel carriers, and even Archer long-range artillery—are not the kinds of systems that can disrupt or degrade Russian forces far behind the front lines.

In short, Ukraine is being made to fight the war the hard way, not the smart way.

Ukrainian forces have indeed been pushing back against Russia at the front. But when they have been able to create or obtain the right technology, they have also attacked Russian supply and troop-deployment chains. This approach to war was probably most evident last summer, when the Ukrainians, as soon as they gained access to HIMARS rocket launchers and other Western multiple-rocket-launcher systems, embarked on a highly effective campaign against Russian supply points from Kherson to the Donbas. They managed to wreck a logistics system that had been supplying the Russian armies with huge amounts of firepower daily.

Almost immediately the Russians had to move their large supply depots out of range of the Ukrainians’ new rocket launchers, keeping essential equipment much farther from the front. This has severely limited Russia’s operations. It can fire significantly fewer shells each day and apparently can concentrate fewer vehicles on the front. The area where the Russians can properly supply their forces for operations has shrunk.

This overall approach led the Ukrainians to one of their great successes last year: the liberation of the west bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson province. When faced with a large, relatively experienced Russian force around the city of Kherson, the Ukrainians tried two different tacks. One involved direct armed assaults against the Russian salient west of the river. These assaults achieved at best modest results. The Ukrainians were able at points to push the Russian front back a few miles, but they were never able to break the line for any major gain.

Yet, in the end, the Russian army withdrew from Kherson last fall. Why was that? Because the other tack had made its supply situation more and more tenuous: After a months-long Ukrainian campaign targeting Russian-held depots, bridges, and river crossings, Russian commanders decided that Kherson was not strategically valuable enough to be worth the effort to hold it. The attacks on Russian supplies and logistics, which sapped their ability to deploy and maintain forces, were what made the difference.

Eliot A. Cohen: Western aid to Ukraine is still not enough

The tanks and other assistance that Ukraine is currently receiving will help it attack the Russian army directly—which appears likely in the next few months. Ukrainian troops are training for such an operation in many partner countries and in Ukraine itself. They might well end up breaking the Russian line and advancing into the gap—the Ukrainian military has proved extremely resourceful and determined so far—but any success will likely be at significant cost to Ukraine’s own forces.

Their task would be easier if their allies had given them a stronger capacity to attack Russians from a greater distance. They clearly want to do it. One of the most extraordinary abilities the Ukrainians have shown is developing homegrown long-range systems, often incorporating drones, to attack Russian forces many miles from the front. Yet these homegrown systems are limited. NATO states could have given Ukraine longer-range equipment—including a missile system known as ATACMS and advanced fixed-wing aircraft—or made a massive effort to help the Ukrainians develop and improve their own ranged systems.

Unfortunately, NATO states, including the U.S., have been reluctant to provide the Ukrainians with missile systems with too long of a range, seemingly for fear of escalating tensions with Russia. Instead of allowing the Ukrainians to degrade Russian forces far from the front line, Ukraine is being prepared to attack that line. The Ukrainians’ fortitude and ingenuity up to this point suggest that they could indeed accomplish their task—but it’s been made much harder than it needs to be.