How to deter a war

Analysis & Opinion

Thomas Theiner

Bulgarian MiG-29s – needed in Ukraine right now Photo by Чавдар Гърчев

By invading Crimea on phony pretexts and by denying repeatedly the realities of events, Vladimir Putin has shown himself to be a raving lunatic. So far, the West’s response has been pathetically weak, as its leaders seem unable to grasp the full extent of Putin’s actions and further plans. With more than 100,000 men on Ukraine’s Eastern border and reinforcements pouring into Crimea and the Russian occupied Transnistria region in Moldova, Putin is setting the stage for an invasion of Ukraine proper.

Tough economic sanctions or a well-organized and equipped Ukrainian Army could deter Putin from further aggression, but since Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom, the most important trading partners of Russia, are refusing to contemplate sanctions and as the Ukrainian Armed Forces are no match for the Russian Armed Forces in a conventional war, there is little that will deter Putin from invading other parts of Ukraine as soon as he finds a fitting pretext to present to the Russian people.

Luckily, such a pretext has not yet appeared, thanks to the remarkable loyalty, courage and restraint of the Ukrainian troops in Crimea, who even under grave threat have neither surrendered nor resorted to force, and have thus denied Putin his desired pretext for an all-out war. This has given nations willing to help Ukraine deter further Russian aggression a short window to arm and equip the Ukrainian Armed Forces enough to make a Russian invasion too risky, and thus prevent all-out war. The United States, Canada, Sweden and the Eastern European nations, who have already declared their will to help Ukraine substantially, have to act quickly and act alone – without waiting for the corrupted nations of Western Europe to come around. Besides supporting the government in Kyiv financially and diplomatically the following must be done to deter Russia from all-out war and to strengthen the Ukrainian resolve to stand up to their bullying neighbor:

  1. The electronic, satellite and intelligence reconnaissance capabilities of the United States are unmatched and everything picked up by them must be shared with Ukraine’s military leadership immediately to help the Ukrainian Armed Forces prepare and deploy its forces in the best possible way.
  2. Ukraine urgently needs military equipment and war stocks to bring its Armed Forces up to combat strength and nations supporting Ukraine should deliver as much as possible as quickly as possible. However advanced Western weapon systems cannot be given to Ukraine now as there is no time to train Ukrainian troops in their use, but Eastern European countries possess vast amounts of stored Soviet/Russian weapons systems that could be brought into Ukrainian service instantly. As Eastern European countries will no longer buy military hardware from Russia and won’t receive any spare parts for these Soviet/Russian weapon systems, they will have to be taken out of service soon anyway. However, scraping them in a few years’ time won’t help anyone, while delivering them to Ukraine right now will bolster the Ukrainian Armed Forces substantially. Specifically the following weapon systems should be transferred to Ukraine within days:
  • MiG-29 – The Ukraine Air Force lost half of its MiG-29 fighter force when Russian troops occupied Belbek Air Base in Crimea. Bulgaria, Poland and Slovakia have 72 MiG-29 fighter jets in service, while Hungary and Romania have about 50 in storage. In total around 122 MiG-29 could be transferred to Ukraine, tripling the strength of the Ukrainian Air Force. Romania and Poland are already in process of replacing their MiG-29s with American F-16s, while Bulgaria plans to do so shortly. This process needs to be speed up. America should base two F-16 squadrons in Bulgaria – one to guard the Bulgarian airspace and one to train Bulgarian and Romanian pilots on the F-16. Another F-16 squadron should be given to Poland, while Sweden should provide Slovakia with 14 of its surplus Gripen fighter jets, with Hungary and the Czech Republic providing training and air policing over Slovakia with their own Gripen fighters. Besides strengthening the Ukrainian Air Force this move would also send a powerful signal to Eastern European nations, that the United States stands firmly by them and would provide the US Air Force with 48 F-16 fighters in the Black Sea region.
  • S-300 – Bulgaria, Greece and Slovakia together possess 28 of this long range air-defense missile system. Transferring these systems would quadruple the Ukrainian air-defense capabilities. All three countries plan to replace the S-300 system in the near future and in return for transferring them to Ukraine now they should be reimbursed with Patriot air-defense missile systems from the 1,100 strong US Patriot systems stock.
  • 2K12 Kub – Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia have approximately 140 of this medium range air-defense missile system, all of which should be transferred to Ukraine, while Finland has 18 9K37 Buk medium range air-defense missile system planned for decommissioning next year.
  • Mi-24 – Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Poland and Slovakia have almost 200 of this Soviet attack helicopter in service. Transferring these helicopters would increase the Ukrainian Army’s attack helicopter force fivefold.
  • Tarantul Corvettes – the Ukrainian Navy lost most of its ships during the Russian takeover of Crimea. As a stopgap measure Bulgaria, Poland and Romania should transfer their six Tarantul-class missile corvettes to Ukraine. The two Polish corvettes have only been decommissioned on 3 December 2013, while the Bulgarian corvette and the three Romanian corvettes are already based in the Black Sea.

Transferring MiG-29 fighters, S-300, 2K12 Kub and 9K37 Buk air-defense systems will allow Ukraine to deny the Russian Air Force air supremacy; transferring Mi-24 attack helicopters will allow Ukraine to blunt Russian armored spearheads and transferring Tarantul-class corvettes will allow Ukraine to defend Odesa from Russian amphibious landings. This timely boost to the Ukrainian Armed Forces and show of support for Ukraine might deter Russia.

Furthermore, the nations willing to support Ukraine should now provide the newest types of bullet proof vests, night vision devices and communication equipment, as well as ammunition and fuel, while Eastern European nations, Greece and Turkey should provide Ukraine with their entire remaining Fagot, Konkurs, Metis-M and Kornet anti-tank guided missiles and Igla air-defense missiles.

Additionally each nation should draw up a list with further surplus equipment that could be shipped to Ukraine if requested – especially T-72 tanks (of which 1300 are stored by Eastern European Armies), BMP-type infantry fighting vehicles, self-propelled artillery systems and mobile short-range air-defense systems should be on these lists to reassure the Ukrainian military that combat losses can be replaced quickly.

All mentioned weapon systems are of Soviet or Russian origin and therefore only a stop-gap measure to prop up the Ukrainian Armed Forces in the short term. In the long-term Ukraine, as well as all Eastern European nations, will need Western weapon systems to replace Russian equipment. Therefore complex Western military systems – like e.g. German Bremen-class frigates, Italian Sauro-class submarines, Lupo-class and Maestrale-class frigates and American, Belgian, Danish, Dutch and Norwegian F-16 fighters – which are scheduled to be decommissioned, should be transferred to Ukraine and other Eastern European nations, including Moldova and Georgia in the coming years.

While these measures might work to deter Putin from all-out war in the short term, they are not certain to do so. Ukraine’s military suffers from 20 years of neglect and the aforementioned measures would only make it much more costly for Russia to win a war, but it would not make it impossible for Russia to win a war. Only an expansion of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and a complete overhaul of its organization, equipment and materiel can ensure long term deterrence against Russian aggression. But we have mere days to act now, and therefore transferring equipment the Ukrainian Armed Forces can instantly put into service are our best option.  The only other two quick options that would deter Putin for certain from all kind of aggression carry much more risk: either Ukraine attains nuclear weapons; or European and American combat brigades move into Ukraine right now for a “multinational training exercise” – about which Putin, who is so overly fond of holding military training exercises that are “unrelated” to current political events near contested territories, could hardly complain.

Thomas Theiner is a writer and production manager. He has previously lived in Kyiv for 5 years and worked at a subsidiary of Ukraine’s biggest film company.

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