The Cost of Hesitation: the Impact of Western Military Aid Timing on Ukraine’s Battlefront
Hesitancy of Ukraine’s allies to provide the needed weapons was one of the key factors for slower-than-expected progress of the Ukrainian army this year. This is a mistake and should be corrected.
Ukraine’s 2023 counteroffensive has not brought the kinds of dramatic breakthroughs that took our breaths away in 2022. Earlier this month the Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the challenges the Ukrainian army has faced this year and what it would take to overcome them. Some observers that the current frontline situation is the result of the slow-walking of Western military aid, which allowed Russia to build fortified defenses and extensively mine Ukraine’s occupied territory. Others that, despite receiving billions of dollars’ worth of military aid and cutting-edge Western military technology, Ukraine does not have the capabilities to achieve a decisive victory and needs to negotiate with Russia.
As economists, we assess competing hypotheses with data. We cataloged the timeline of each major military item provided to Ukraine and how it affected the situation on the frontline. What this timeline reveals is how the hesitation of Western leaders in providing Ukraine with the necessary military assets allowed Russia to fortify positions and maintain supply lines closer to the frontlines. The lack of ammunition and armaments, including long-range missile capabilities, infantry fighting vehicles, and tanks, delayed Ukraine’s initial plans to the counteroffensive in spring 2023. Had the same military aid been provided sooner, the frontline situation might look very different today. Fortunately, there is still an opportunity for course correction.
High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS). On April 13, 2022, Ukraine ed HIMARS to strike supply lines and logistics deep inside Russian-occupied territory. After months of deliberation , the US finally provided Ukraine with HIMARS on June 23, 2022. In the intervening months, Ukraine’s limited ability to strike targets within occupied territories enabled Russia to logistics including roads and railways. Eventually, the 70 km range of the GMLRS rockets delivered alongside and launched from the HIMARS, enhanced Ukraine’s capabilities and forced the Russians to move logistics bases and ammunition depots further back, setting the ground for Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive in the fall of 2022.
This was a costly delay, yet with a good ending. Unfortunately, the delay in Ukraine receiving HIMARS was by far the shortest of the major weapons systems.
Infantry fighting vehicles. Since April 13, 2022, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has made numerous for infantry fighting vehicles, such as Bradleys and Strykers, to quickly transport Ukrainian infantry to combat zones, provide armor protection and covering fire, and destroy Russian tanks from a safe distance . The arrival of infantry fighting vehicles was not confirmed until over a year after they were first requested. Meanwhile, Russia had ample time to a vast network of anti-vehicle trenches, “dragon’s teeth” pyramid obstacles, and other fortifications that now decrease the effectiveness of these vehicles in penetrating Russian lines. Receiving infantry fighting vehicles sooner would have denied Russia time and resources to fortify its southern positions, allowing for an earlier and more effective counteroffensive.
Worse still, other military capabilities such as Abrams tanks and aircraft did not even arrive in time for the delayed counteroffensive.
Abrams Tanks. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky requested Western tanks as early as the emergency NATO summit on March 24, 2022. The first batch of 31 M-1A1 Abrams tanks with mine plows that create a safe vehicle path by pushing mines out of the way a year and a half later-on September 25, 2023, months after the start of this year’s counteroffensive. German Leopard tanks arrived but still a full year after initial requests. These delays reduced Ukraine’s mine-clearing capabilities and slowed down advances past heavily mined frontlines.
ATACMS. On September 12, 2022, Ukraine Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS), missiles that are 50 percent larger than Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (GMLRS) rockets and can strike Russian supply lines as far as 160 km away. The ATACMS were supposedly delayed by Western fears of escalating the conflict but finally on October 17, 2023 (with, naturally, no resulting escalation). Had they arrived earlier, Ukraine would have been able to significantly degrade the Russian supply lines at a time when Russian forces were less dug in, launching the counteroffensive from a more advantageous position. The delays in ATACMS denied Ukraine the necessary ability to strike deeper at military assets, ammunition depots, and field bases within Russian-occupied territory.
Aircraft. Ukraine has F-16s and F-15s, advanced fighter aircraft renowned for their agility and combat capabilities, since March 2022. After months of internal debate and yet more fears of Russian escalation , the United States has now shipments of F-16s from other countries to Ukraine. The 1.5-year means Ukraine will not be able to use these capabilities until . As a result, Russia air superiority over occupied territories, leaving Ukrainian ground forces and combined arms operations vulnerable to Russian aircraft while clearing mines and attempting to breach Russian defensive positions. Atlantic Council , “ No Western military commander would ever attempt to execute such an offensive without first establishing control over the skies above the battlefield.” Ukraine, however, had no choice but to launch its counteroffensive without air superiority lest the Russians continue to build up defensive networks and improve their supply lines.
At the end of the day, the strategy of arming Ukraine slowly-either from fear of Russian escalation or in the hopes of Russian self-disintegration-has proven a strategic mistake. Empirically, Russia has not escalated in response to a single one of the new Western weapon provisions. Tying our own hands has only increased the costs of the war. On the one hand, the US and other allies support Ukraine for “as long as it takes.” On the other hand, the strategy of slow support practically ensures that that timeframe (as long as it takes) will be very long indeed.
Is it too late to change course? We don’t think so. Even with a dearth of weaponry, Ukraine has adapted and achieved remarkable successes, for example in damaging and routing Russian naval assets on the Crimean front. Ukraine has also consistently degraded Russian supply depots, airfields, and command posts. The liberation of Kharkiv in 2022 shows how superior technology from the West and sound military strategy can offset Russia’s numerical and industrial advantages. Although delayed weapons shipments have precluded a similar breakthrough in 2023, Ukraine uses the weapons to great effectiveness when they finally arrive-for example, destroying nine Russian helicopters within a few days of acquiring ATACMS. If Ukraine receives everything General Zaluzhnyi in a timely manner, it is likely that any stalemate will be broken sooner rather than later.
For 21 months, Western leaders hesitated to provide Ukraine with some of the most effective tools. The weapons were eventually provided, and the delays only granted Russia time to fortify and entrench its positions. The hesitancy has emboldened Putin, reinforced his perception of Western weakness, and heightened his confidence in his ability to outlast Ukraine’s allies. This encourages not only Putin, but others around the world, as evidenced by the new Israel-Hamas war . At the end of the day, Putin’s Russia will have to be dealt with, from its outright land-grabs to gray-zone operations , disinformation campaigns , and fermenting nationalist and populist sentiment around the world. Instead of debating how much military aid to provide, Ukraine’s allies should acknowledge and address the underlying problem: delays in supplying Ukraine with the necessary technology to decisively defeat Russia have backfired in the 2023 counteroffensive. Let’s do better going forward. The stakes are too high for hesitation, not only for Ukraine but for the entire democratic world.
Authors: Tatyana Deryugina, Anastassia Fedyk, Alex Richter