Years of Western reluctance to help Ukraine modernize its Soviet-era air defenses have left the country dramatically vulnerable to a massive Russian bombing and missile campaign that could devastate Ukrainian forces before they ever see a hostile tank or soldier.
A confluence of concerns — fear of provoking Russia, worries the technology could fall into Russian hands, doubts Ukraine could operate the systems — prevented the U.S. and its allies from granting Ukrainian requests for sophisticated surface-to-air missiles in the years after Russia seized Crimea in 2014, current and former American officials and defense experts told NBC News.
Those calculations seemed reasonable at the time, yet they all but ensured Ukraine would be largely defenseless against what experts say would be an overwhelming display of air power should Russia mount a full-scale invasion. American officials are scrambling to find ways to help Ukrainian forces preserve themselves, but there are few good options.
“We certainly all missed an opportunity,” said Philip Breedlove, a retired four-star Air Force general who was supreme allied commander of NATO during the 2014 Russian aggression, and was involved in the ensuing debate over how much aid to give Ukraine. “The West, NATO and all of the individual nations involved missed an opportunity. I think we’re looking at it in retrospect now and thinking maybe we should have made a different decision.”
Retired Adm. James Stavridis, who preceded Breedlove as NATO's supreme allied commander and is now an NBC News national security contributor, agreed.
“I think air defense would have been a very smart move,” he said. “If we had put more out there sooner, we would not be where we are now.”
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As it stands, Russia is likely to begin any full-scale invasion with a lethal and largely unchallenged assault by bombers, ballistic missiles and artillery, said Dmitri Alperovitch, co-founder of the Silverado Policy Accelerator, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
“The shock and awe campaign they can launch with those resources against entrenched Ukrainian forces before the main ground invasion begins will be truly devastating," he said. “The Ukrainian military has no answer for these weapons.”
Decisions by American presidents of both parties set the stage. President Barack Obama declined to provide any lethal aid after Crimea fell in 2014, rejecting the recommendations of his most senior national security officials. President Donald Trump signed off on the provision of Javelin anti-tank missiles only after delaying the aid package in an act that led to his impeachment. He didn’t provide air defense.
The Biden administration has been accused of being slow to act as well. By the time U.S. intelligence agencies concluded six months ago that Russia was planning for a possible invasion, there wasn’t enough time to train the Ukrainians to operate sophisticated air defenses such as Patriot missiles, Stavridis said.
“Over the last six months we were kind of at a dead sprint to put the right tools in their hands, but it was kind of too late,” Stavridis said. “There was just no time.”
A U.S. military team visited Ukraine in December to assess its air defenses, but concluded there wasn’t much new equipment that could be provided, defense officials said.
No one is suggesting any set of weapons systems could enable Ukraine to repel a full-scale attack by one of the world’s most potent military forces. But better air defenses might have provided a level of deterrence that now doesn’t exist. Analysts say the prospect of bombers being shot down in flight might have forced forced Russian President Vladimir Putin to re-evaluate his strategy.
Ukraine does have some ability to resist an air attack. Ukraine got a small, last-minute infusion of surface-to-air missiles just this month from European partners. Lithuania and Latvia provided some man-portable Stinger missiles, which the Afghan mujahideen used to drive out the Russians in the 1980s after receiving them from the CIA.
That capability augments Ukraine’s existing air defenses, which are largely dated, Russian-made systems that are extremely susceptible to electronic jamming, experts say.
It’s also true that Russia lacks experience flying through contested air space, said Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corp. think tank.
“If they commit tactical aviation inside Ukrainian airspace for a large operation, some Russian aircraft losses are likely,” she said. “Ultimately though, the sheer volume of combat air power that Russia could bring, particularly in combination with longer range precision strikes, would probably overwhelm Ukrainian air defenses.”
And once Russia has air superiority, it will be free to destroy the Ukrainian military from a stand-off distance, without putting ground troops at risk.
Body armor, not air defense
After Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, Obama's defense secretary and other top military leaders argued in favor or providing lethal assistance to Ukraine.
But Obama declined, sending items such as night vision goggles and body armor instead.
John Brennan, an NBC News national security contributor who served as CIA director from 2013 to 2017, said there were worries at the time about NATO technology ending up in Russian hands. Obama and some of his aides feared that if the U.S. armed Ukraine, it could set off a dangerous spiral that would see Russia prevail.
In 2015, Obama expressed concern about providing lethal aid, “Can we be certain that any lethal aid that we provide Ukraine is used properly, doesn’t fall into the wrong hands, does not lead to over-aggressive actions that can’t be sustained by the Ukrainians?” Obama told reporters at the White House after a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “What kinds of reactions does it prompt, not simply from the separatists but from the Russians? Those are all issues that have to be considered.”
Merkel’s government opposed sending weapons, and instead favored imposing economic sanctions. Germany was playing a crucial role in rallying European allies to back a package of sanctions, and the Obama administration concluded those measures had a better chance of changing Moscow’s calculus than sending anti-tank weapons that might delay, but would not change, the ultimate outcome on the battlefield.
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At the time, not providing arms to the Ukrainians was a defensible decision, said Michael Kofman, director of Russia Studies at the CNA think tank.
But Kofman said the West should have done more as the years passed to push Ukraine to seriously reform and reorganize its military. “That was a missed opportunity.”
The Ukrainian military did improve a bit, Brennan and others said. and the Trump administration was more receptive to requests for weapons, despite Trump’s public embrace of Putin.
In August 2018, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States went public with his government’s request that the U.S. government help modernize its Soviet-era air defense systems.
“Ukraine has requested to official Washington for a possible sale of air defense systems worth $750 million for one unit,” Valeriy Chaly, Ukraine's ambassador to the U.S. at the time, told Radio NV, according to a translation reported in Defence Blog.
But the discussions didn’t move forward, according to American officials and outside experts. It’s not entirely clear why.
Instead of focusing on the threat posed by Russia to Ukraine, Trump was fixated on pressuring Ukraine’s government to look for dirt on his then political opponent, Joe Biden, according to former officials, including Fiona Hill, who served as the White House’s Russia adviser during the Trump administration. Diplomats pleaded with the White House to move ahead with a package of military aid that Trump wanted to use as leverage over Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
By the time Zelenskyy held the infamous September 2019 phone call that would lead to Trump’s first impeachment, the talk had turned to Javelin anti-tank missiles.
The military aid package was held up illegally, the Government Accountability Office later ruled, and Trump was impeached and acquitted over allegations he tried to extort Ukraine to leverage an investigation of Biden’s dealings in Ukraine.
The Trump administration ultimately delivered the Javelins. But Javelins, with a range of about one and a half miles, are designed to defeat tanks, not planes.
'How did that work out?'
Almost from the moment President Biden took office, members of the House and Senate armed services committees, among other lawmakers, pressed his administration to beef up Ukraine’s air defenses, but met with resistance, according to two senior congressional officials directly involved in the talks.
Some lawmakers wanted the defense department to send Ukraine a large volume of Stinger missiles starting in the fall, but the administration did not want to provide them directly, one of the congressional officials said.
The Biden administration worried Ukraine could not “absorb” a large volume of Stingers, the official said. In a closed-door briefing to Congress last month, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the administration believed Ukraine did not have the capacity to “absorb” some higher-end weapons. The administration also had concerns about aggravating the crisis and possibly provoking more aggressive actions from Moscow, according to two congressional aides who were present.
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“We didn’t want to provoke Putin,” the official said. “How did that work out?”
After this story was published, an NSC spokesman said this account is “false.” The spokesman, Sean Savett, also said the NSC disputes that the Biden administration resisted supplying air defense weapons to Ukraine.
White House officials defended their record, saying they have committed more than $650 million in security assistance to Ukraine in the past year alone.
Breedlove said he has come to believe that the U.S. and its allies have for years failed to respond robustly enough to Russia’s belligerent behavior.
“I believe the West’s response to [the Russian invasion of Georgia] in 2008 was inadequate,” he said. “I feel like the West’s response to Russia in 2014 was inadequate. I think what you see happening is testimony to the fact that we didn’t get it right in either '08 or '14."
“Every time Russia does something, it seems that the West wants to rapidly get past it and get back to buying cheap energy.”