By Thalif Deen*
The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has resulted in a never-ending flow of arms to the battle-scarred country— elevating the besieged nation to the ranks of one of the major recipients of US weapons and American security assistance.
As of last week, the US has provided a hefty $17.5 billion in arms and military assistance to Ukraine.
The five biggest arms buyers from the US during 2017-2021 were Saudi Arabia, which accounted for 23.4 percent of all US arms exports –followed by Australia 9.4 percent, South Korea 6.8 percent, Japan 6.7 percent and Qatar 5.4 percent.
The figure for Ukraine during the same period was 0.1 percent, according to the latest statistics released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
But this measly figure is expected to skyrocket in 2022, judging by the uninterrupted flow of American weapons.
In a statement to reporters October 4, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said pursuant to a delegation of authority from the President, “I am authorizing our 22nd drawdown of U.S. arms and equipment for Ukraine since August 2021.”
This $625 million drawdown, he said, includes additional arms, munitions, and equipment from U.S. Department of Defense inventories.
This drawdown will bring the total U.S. military assistance for Ukraine to more than $17.5 billion since the beginning of the Biden Administration in January 2021.
Pieter Wezeman, Senior Researcher, Arms Transfers Programme at SIPRI, told IPS arms supplies to Ukraine were very small compared to those of the top-15 recipients of US arms.
This will change in 2022 as Ukraine has received major weapon systems from the US, such as 20 HIMARS long range rocket launchers, close to 1000 older model used light armoured vehicles, radars and 142 M-777 towed guns, he said.
“These are most valuable systems per item which Ukraine has received from the US, but the numbers involved and the military or financial value of these weapons are modest compared to what certain other countries have received in major systems in recent years.”
He pointed out that Ukraine has not received other items that per piece or especially valuable such as modern tanks, combat aircraft, major ships and long-range air defense systems.
Dr. Natalie J. Goldring, a Visiting Professor of the Practice in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, told IPS these weapons transfers entail numerous risks.
One significant risk is that the weapons will be captured by Russian forces and potentially used against Western forces. Another is that weapons that remain when the conflict ends will be transferred to other areas of conflict, she warned.
One of the nightmare scenarios, she pointed out, is US weapons being used against US forces. Transferring vast quantities of weapons in such a short period of time increases this risk by making it more difficult to ensure accountability and prevent diversion of the weapons.
Perhaps the largest risk, she said, “is that Russian President Vladimir Putin will not accept the argument that these weapons are only being supplied to help Ukraine defend itself, particularly if we’re supplying weapons that can attack targets inside Russia.”
That may lead to an escalation and expansion of the conflict, and would likely produce even more threats of nuclear weapons use than President Putin has already made she noted.
“Escalating threats in turn increase the risk of actual use of nuclear weapons, whether deliberate or through accident or miscalculation”, said Dr Goldring, who also represents the Acronym Institute at the United Nations, on conventional weapons and arms trade issues.
In the end, she argued, regardless of the outcome of the conflict itself, the military contractors win. The Defense Department has already started ordering replacements for some of the weapons shipped to Ukraine. US weapons manufacturers are profiting from what appears to be an open-ended commitment to supply Ukrainian forces.
Even for weapons that are still in production, supply line challenges may make it difficult to replace the weapons transferred to Ukraine in a timely manner. This raises the question of how long the US military will be able to sustain these shipments without threatening US force readiness, she added.
According to the US Department of Defense, the security assistance package for Ukraine that was announced on 4 October 2022 is the 22nd drawdown from US stocks in less than a year.
In the 4 October 2022 press statement on the additional drawdown authority, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said, “The capabilities we are delivering are carefully calibrated to make the most difference on the battlefield and strengthen Ukraine’s hand at the negotiating table when the time is right.”
“But without an indication of when real peace negotiations will take place, the seemingly unending flow of weapons from the United States is likely to continue and US defense contractors will continue to increase their profits. At the same time, though, the risks of these transfers also increase as the quantity of weapons transferred grows,” she declared.
Justifying US arms sales, Blinken said: “We will continue to stand with the people of Ukraine as they defend their freedom and independence with extraordinary courage and boundless determination. The capabilities we are delivering are carefully calibrated to make the most difference on the battlefield and strengthen Ukraine’s hand at the negotiating table when the time is right. We stand United with Ukraine”.
At the UN General Assembly last month, President Biden made it clear yet again that the US will support the people of Ukraine for as long as it takes.
Blinken said “recent developments from Russia’s sham referenda and attempted annexation to new revelations of brutality against civilians in Ukrainian territory formerly controlled by Russia only strengthens our resolve.”
“United with our Allies and partners from 50 nations, we are delivering the arms and equipment that Ukraine’s forces are utilizing so effectively today in a successful counter-offensive to take back their lands seized illegally by Russia,” he declared.
Wezeman said it is very large numbers of anti-tank missiles, such as over 8,000 Javelin anti-tank missiles, and over a million rounds for heavy artillery and probably thousands of advanced guided rockets for the HIMARS systems that account for the bulk of the US military aid to Ukraine.
Such amounts of ammunition, he said, surpass by far the amount of ammunition normally imported by any recipient of US arms in a given year.
Even though tens of thousands rounds of such ammunition need to be supplied to equal the value of let’s say 1 new F-15SA combat aircraft and related infrastructure, training, munitions spare parts etc., the numbers are so large that they do matter, said Wezeman.
He said there has already been discussions about sending further major weapons to Ukraine, even the possibility of supplying tanks and combat aircraft, as suggested. And if this happens, Ukraine will further rise amongst in the ranks of arms recipients from the US.
*Thalif Deen is a former Director, Foreign Military Markets at Defense Marketing Services; Senior Defense Analyst at Forecast International; and military editor Middle East/Africa at Jane’s Information Group, US. He is also the author of a recently-released book on the United Nations titled “No Comment and Don’t Quote me on That” available on Amazon.