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How to Save Ukraine: Accelerate NATO Military Modernization

By Benjamin Jensen Despite the new “ceasefire,” current diplomatic approaches to deterring Russian aggression in Ukraine are a failure. While sanctions are destroying the Russian economy, they are not stopping the Kremlin from supporting rebels, deploying troops along Ukraine’s border or exercising their strategic nuclear force posture. Vladimir Putin prefers playing chess to the popular American board game Monopoly. His inner circle is interested in re-establishing a sphere of influence and a strategic buffer. They are betting that by the time Western sanctions “work,” Ukraine will be a failed state in the Russian orbit and NATO a hollow alliance.  

Re-establishing security in Europe requires a bold new plan: accelerating NATO force modernization initiatives in Eastern Europe and immediately delivering its surplus Cold War equipment to Ukraine. The plan is simple and sends a clear signal. NATO member states back Ukrainian independence and have the military capabilities to deter future conventional conflict. The plan requires Congressional committee action. The next National Defense Authorization Act should include language that fast tracks foreign military sales for Eastern European members of NATO. These countries need firm guarantees the United States is committed to NATO and willing to replenish weapons stockpiles they send to defend Ukrainian sovereignty.  

There is historical precedent for using NATO equipment to resupply an ally in the middle of a conflict. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the United States military launched Operation Nickel Grass, airlifting more than 22,000 tons of military equipment, including stockpiles from depots in Europe, to Israel. The move was not without risk, leaving NATO conventional defenses significantly weakened in the event of a crisis with the Warsaw Pact. Yet, decision makers at the time correctly calculated that the Soviet’s would not capitalize on the situation before America replenished the stockpiles.  

In the current crisis, the United States will again have to play a leadership role, using is edge in military logistics to help deliver the equipment to Kiev while fast tracking foreign military sales required to replace Soviet era weapons. The Ukrainian Freedom Support Act authorizes the U.S. president to address Ukraine’s persistent requests for weapon, highlighting the need for anti-tank weapons, drones and radar systems. Congress can build on this act with an expanded initiative that helps NATO partners replace Soviet era equipment with more up to date American systems.  

Through Armed Services Committee hearings in the lead up to the National Defense Authorization, Congress can require the secretaries of State and Defense to assess the state of NATO forces with an eye towards sending old systems to Ukraine, as well as require testimony on actions taken to support overall NATO force modernization plans. Both moves send a clear signal to the White House: take NATO and the Ukrainian Freedom Support Act seriously.  

This plan provides Ukrainians weapons they know how to use, as opposed to training them on new systems they are unfamiliar with operating or sustaining. Many Eastern European NATO members still have large stockpiles of Soviet weapons that could be a force multiplier in the Ukrainian conflict. This includes large inventories of anti-tank weapons, artillery systems and even combat aircraft — all platforms the Ukrainians desperately need to hold the line against further Russian advances. Poland has more than 2,000 RPG-7 anti-tank systems and 1,000 SWD Sniper rifles that match current Ukrainian requests. They also have surplus T-72 tanks. Bulgaria has more than 80 combat jets and helicopters it is looking to replace.  

Second, the plan offers the United States a cost-effective path for accelerating force modernization plans in Eastern European NATO members. It reassures allies and is consistent with NATO’s 2014 Wales Declaration to bolster alliance defense capabilities. The plan complements efforts to deter Russian including the recent announcement that six new bases will be set up alongside a 5,000-strong “spearhead” reaction force.  

Signaling a willingness to uphold the current international order and reassuring key allies has benefits that reach beyond Europe. Reading Ukraine as simply a European security issue is a deeply flawed exercise. U.S. allies are watching. A failure to support a country under attack by a mix of proxy supported rebels and top-tier Russian military without uniforms shows the U.S. is unwilling to defend the territorial integrity of states. With one move, the United States can check Russian advances in Ukraine and reassure its allies. In the short-term Ukraine receives the military assistance it desperately needs. Over the long-term, a modernized military in NATO front-line states offers an expanded conventional deterrent to future Russian aggression.  

Benjamin Jensen, Ph.D. is a scholar-in-residence at American University’s School of International Service and runs the Advanced Studies Program for the USMC Command and Staff College.

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