The US aid package to Ukraine will help. But a better strategy is urgently needed

The essential aid package will allow Kyiv to slow down Russian forces. But the delay had a real cost for Ukraine, and a secure long-term funding model is required.

Expert comment Updated 14 May 2024 Published 25 April 2024 3 minute READ

The new $61 billion US aid package for Ukraine, approved by Congress on 23 April, will improve Ukraine’s battlefield position – allowing stocks of ammunition from US bases in Poland and Germany to be shipped quickly to existing Ukrainian forces, and newly mobilized troops to be equipped.

Critics of Ukraine’s mobilization law, recently passed by the parliament in Kyiv, argued it made little sense to draft more men if there were no weapons to arm them: now that concern can be discarded.

The US package includes weapons Ukraine has long sought and which can make a significant difference in the war, like long-range ATACMS missiles. These will improve Ukraine’s capability to threaten and destroy Russian military targets in occupied Crimea, forcing Russia to withdraw its equipment and enhancing Black Sea security.

The US vote also provides an important boost to morale in Ukraine, restoring hope that Western partners are delivering on their promises and sending a powerful signal to Russia. Ukrainian soldiers have sent messages from the trenches, thanking the American people; MPs displayed American flags in Ukraine’s parliament.

Impact on the battlefield 

In the short term, however, the battlefield situation will remain difficult.

Following the vote, Moscow will also likely intensify its drone and missile strikes, targeting Ukraine’s logistics routes, infrastructure and defense industrial base.

Ukraine’s defence intelligence chief has already warned that Russia might attempt a new offensive in May. Meanwhile Russian forces have already captured around 360 sq km of territory this year, according to the Institute of the Study of War, enabled by Ukraine’s shortage of ammunition.

Now the Russian military is pushing to seize the town of Chasiv Yar in the Donetsk region, hoping to take it before Moscow’s Victory day parade on 9 May.

If captured, this would open the way for an advance to Ukraine’s Donbas strongholds of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, with severe consequences for Ukraine’s strategic position.

Homefront and civilian infrastructure

Following the vote, Moscow will also likely intensify its drone and missile strikes. These will target Ukraine’s logistics routes, infrastructure and defense industrial base, left dangerously exposed in recent weeks by a shortage of air defenses.

Recent Russian attacks have caused huge damage to Ukraine’s energy infrastructure and completely destroyed the largest thermal power plant in the Kyiv region, leaving vast parts of the country in blackout.

The US is reportedly supplying one more Patriot missile defence system to Ukraine as a part of its aid package.

But that will not be enough to protect Ukraine’s sky. Officials in Kyiv said they need seven more Patriots. Germany has committed to sending one, and Spain and Greece are under pressure to transfer their systems to Ukraine.

Until they arrive, Ukraine will suffer more damage. Kharkiv, a city of 1.3 million people on the Russian border, is under particularly heavy daily bombardment – its  mayor saying it was at risk of turning into a ‘second Aleppo’.

The crisis management model and European support

The six-month delay in provision of the US military aid has therefore had huge repercussions for Ukraine’s ability to defend itself, demonstrating that the unstable ‘crisis management’ model of Western aid actually emboldens Russia to escalate – perceiving Western hesitancy as weakness. It also shows that it is naïve to believe that the frontline in Ukraine can remain stable without a steady flow of Western military assistance.

Without a better plan for consistent aid delivery, sooner or later Ukraine will again find itself in a critical situation.

It is a welcome development that the new US bill acknowledges the need for more stable funding and calls for a ‘multi-year’ strategy with ‘specific and achievable objectives’ that hasten Ukrainian victory.

However, US support should not be overly relied upon. Europe must act too, using the time Ukraine has bought it to get serious about defence.

Germany’s Olaf Scholz should also follow the example set by the US provision of ATACMS systems to unblock the delivery of Taurus missiles to Ukraine.

European countries must follow up the US’s significant new commitment by urgently seeking to ramp up domestic ammunition production. It must move faster with the delivery of 1 million artillery shells, promised long ago. And it must finally get serious about increasing military spending budgets.

Europeans should also transfer more weapons to Ukraine, particularly air defence systems. Ukrainian officials say there are about a hundred Patriot missile defence systems in the world. Kyiv’s partners should use their diplomatic and financial heft to secure at least the seven Ukraine has requested.

Germany’s Olaf Scholz should also follow the example set by the US provision of ATACMS systems to unblock the delivery of Taurus missiles.

A new funding strategy

Most importantly, the bitter experience with the US military aid package shows that the whole approach to supporting Ukraine must change. The US only approved an aid package after realizing that Ukraine was on the brink of collapse. Many lives could have been saved if it had been released earlier. (At least 604 civilians were killed or injured in Ukraine in March 2024 alone).

A long-term, sustainable strategy that enables an uninterrupted flow of Western military aid, regardless of election cycles and political squabbles, must be developed by the US, Europe and Ukraine’s other allies. Vital assistance should never again be a hostage of domestic politics.

This can be achieved by legislatively committing to funding Ukraine in the long-term. Bilateral security agreements Ukraine has signed with six EU countries and the UK allow for that. More similar agreements, including one with the US, are upcoming.

Another option is to fund Ukraine’s defence effort with frozen Russian assets. Kyiv has been long campaigning for their seizure and transfer.

Money for this can be found by increasing national defence spending, with governments informing their citizens that supporting Ukraine now prevents much greater future expense – and the need to risk their own servicemen and women’s lives.

Popular opinion across the West is mostly supportive of continuing and boosting funding for Ukraine. A recent example in Slovakia, where citizens crowdfunded almost €3 million for artillery shells, shows that a solution can be found even in countries with reluctant governments.

There’s also the idea of issuing EU bonds to finance efforts to ramp up Europe’s defence capabilities, supported by presidents of France and Estonia.

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Another option is to fund Ukraine’s defence effort with frozen Russian assets. Kyiv has been long campaigning for their seizure and transfer. The US bill authorizes that for assets on American soil: Europe should follow suit.

Finally, keeping momentum in integrating Ukraine with NATO is key. Most senior officials agree that it is now a question of ‘when’ and not ‘if’. The Washington Summit in July must boost the process of supporting mutual interoperability and send another powerful signal to Putin.

The principle underlying support for Ukraine shouldn’t be for ‘as long it takes’, but ‘whatever it takes and as soon as possible’. A sense of urgency, and a clear understanding that the future of global democracy and peace is contingent on the success of Ukraine, should drive policymakers’ decisions. There is still time to save Ukraine and that future.

This article was originally published in The Independent.