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The West should help Ukraine get more Russian-made weapons and ammo from around the world, a think tank says

Despite an influx of Western systems, Ukraine likely will remain dependent on Soviet-era arms for the foreseeable future.
Image: A tank with a Ukrainian soldier heads towards Lysychansk, Ukraine, on June 10, 2022.
A tank with a Ukrainian soldier heads toward Lysychansk, Ukraine, on June 10. Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Ukraine still relies heavily on Russian-made weapons and will need to turn to other countries outside of NATO to secure enough Soviet-era arms and ammunition to keep up its fight against Moscow, according to a new report.

Eastern European countries in NATO already have handed over most of their spare Soviet-origin systems to Ukraine, but there’s an untapped supply of the Russian-manufactured weapons around the world, including in countries that have publicly supported Kyiv, the report by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies think tank said.

The United States and other Western countries should help Ukraine get access to those Soviet-made weapons, including artillery rounds, air defense systems and armored vehicles, the think tank said.

“Although Washington has scoured the stocks of NATO allies and the Pentagon has explored other potential options, an exhaustive search focusing on non-NATO countries reveals a robust supply of untapped Soviet- and Russian-made arms (and their attendant spare parts and ammunition) that Washington could help Kyiv expeditiously acquire,” the report said.

The Foundation for Defense of Democracies calls itself a nonpartisan, nonprofit research institute focusing on national security. It tends to back a hawkish foreign policy stance, and has heavily criticized the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. 

The think tank's report identified more than 6,300 relevant weapons systems from countries outside of NATO that Ukraine is using or employed before the Feb. 24 Russian invasion, including Mi-17 helicopters, T-80 tanks and BM-14 artillery pieces.

The weapons are located in 23 countries, including South Korea, Colombia, Argentina and Kenya.

The countries listed by the report as possible weapons donors met at least one of the following criteria: voted in favor of a United Nations resolution calling for a Russian withdrawal from Ukraine, voted to suspend Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council, or attended a meeting of a U.S.-led Ukraine defense contact group.

The U.S. and its European allies could consider offering future arms sales or swaps with countries that provide Russian-made weapons to Ukraine, other diplomatic or economic incentives, or simply purchase the Soviet-standard systems outright, the think tank said. Some countries might prefer to keep their aid to Ukraine “out of the spotlight,” the report said.

“Some of the countries will say no, some of them may play hard to get, some of them may ask a price that’s too high but, my goodness, we need to be trying,” said ‍Bradley Bowman, one of the authors of the report and a former national security adviser to members of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees.

“Time is of the essence and the stakes are incredibly high,” said Bowman, now senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Ukraine has warned that it is facing shortages of ammunition for its Soviet-standard artillery and that it remains outgunned by Russian forces, which have launched unrelenting shelling attacks in an offensive in the east. Moreover, Ukraine’s capacity to repair and maintain its military equipment likely has been undermined due to Russian missile attacks targeting production sites, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service.

In another setback for Ukraine, Russia seized control of the eastern city of Lysychansk in recent days, giving Moscow effective control of the Luhansk province.

The White House National Security Council and the Department of State did not respond to requests for comment.

An administration official said that the U.S. has been approaching countries in and outside of NATO to supply Ukraine with Soviet-era and Russian-made military equipment, and non-NATO countries have pledged assistance at meetings organized to rally military support for Kyiv.

“For many months, the U.S. has been working with allies and partners to facilitate the transfer of Soviet-era equipment,” the official said. “It’s been part of our bilateral conversation with countries around the world.”

U.S. and Western-made weapons being delivered to Ukraine, including howitzers, drones and high mobility artillery rocket system, or HIMARS, are making a difference on the battlefield, experts say. But many of the new systems require training and Ukraine is still heavily dependent on its Russian-origin gear, said Mark Montgomery, a retired U.S. Navy admiral who served in the U.S. European Command and is now with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“More than 80 percent of their gear is still Soviet-era,” he said.