The scale of broken weapons promises to Ukraine uncovered

Ukraine ‘will become a member of NATO’ says Jens Stoltenberg

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February 24 marked the first anniversary of Russia’s war against Ukraine and its people. The grim milestone was met with renewed promises of weapons from dozens of countries, but now that the buzz has died down, the harsh reality behind the handshakes and photo ops is slowly revealing itself. NATO fighter jets will not see combat in Ukraine, tanks will take months if not years to reach the battlefield. Long-term military underfunding is the root cause across Europe. Here, takes a look at the countries lagging the most when it comes to delivering on their commitments.

Since Russian troops first crossed Ukraine’s borders just over a year ago, over 30 countries have committed or supplied its armed forces with military hardware.

According to research group the Kiel Institute, the sum total between January 24, 2022 and January 15, 2023 amounted to £54.6billion.

The US has been by far Ukraine’s most generous ally in the fight against Vladimir Putin so far – their £39billion contribution making up two-thirds of the total alone. The UK is a distant second in this regard, having dedicated £4.3billion to the cause.

The run-up to the war’s first anniversary saw a surge in political and military support for Volodymyr Zelensky and his country. Nine world leaders have made the trip to Kyiv in 2023 already, three during the past week alone.

US president Joe Biden’s surprise visit last Monday came with a pledge for a further $500million (£413million) worth of shells, anti-armour systems and air surveillance radars.

All told, NATO and its allies have promised hundreds of artillery batteries, dozens of advanced missile systems, over 20,000 portable rocket launchers, hundreds of drones, around 50 helicopters and vast quantities of other equipment.

Whereas keeping track of grand political pronouncements is relatively straightforward, few other than Ukraine’s military planners have a firm grasp of what kit actually reaches the frontlines.

For one thing, there is an incentive for Western governments to keep Russia in the dark as to the accurate movements of their equipment, not to mention the depletion of their home stocks.

However, as the fighting has dragged on the lethality and expense of the weapons offered to Ukrainian forces has escalated. In 2023, now that tanks and fighter jets are in play, the gulf between commitments and deliveries has become glaringly obvious.

Not only are these precious multi-million pound engines of war very conspicuous, Western defence ministries have also found them very difficult to follow through on deploying. Aside from broken promises, the result has also led to very confusing messaging.

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A year ago, mere days after fighting first broke out, EU security chief Josep Borrell claimed jets were already on their way to Ukraine. The following day, the Ukrainian parliament tweeted that Europe was sending 70 fighter planes, including 28 MiG-29s from Poland, 12 from Slovakia and 16 from Bulgaria, along with 14 Su-25s from Bulgaria.

All this was swiftly walked back by the named governments within the week, Polish president Andrzej Duda saying “we are not going to send any jets to Ukrainian airspace” by Tuesday. Over the months that followed, fears of unnecessary escalation seemed to take the prospect off the table for good.

Then, on Wednesday, February 8, following Mr Zelensky’s “wings for freedom” address to both houses of the British Parliament in Westminster Hall, the UK seemed poised to lead the way as Downing Street began “investigating” what jets it could give. The Ukrainian leader also left the country with a firm commitment to have the UK train pilots on NATO-standard aircraft.

The tailwind was, however, short-lived. On the day of the first anniversary, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace ruled out sending RAF Typhoons to Ukraine, claiming the machines were prohibitively complex for Ukrainian pilots and that they would require British ground support. The US also said it would not send F-16s to Ukraine.

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Fighters, however, were only ever rhetoric. Far more concrete promises under threat of being broken when it comes to tanks. On January 14, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s office confirmed the UK would send 14 Challenger 2s – the British Army’s main battle tank – to Ukraine.

Almost two months later, none have been delivered so far. Due to the significant amount of training for operators and maintenance crews required, defence minister Alex Chalk at the time said the tanks were expected to reach the field by the end of March.

Within days, the US had pledged 31 M1 Abrams tanks of its own. However, last week US Army secretary Christine Wormuth told reporters the tanks may not reach Ukraine this year. The US decision came hours after German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s confirmation that his country would also send 14 Leopard 2s, as well as give permission to other European countries to do the same.

However, over the ensuing weeks, the multinational coalition has struggled to pull together two tank battalions of 62 tanks total, despite there being an estimated 2,000 of the model across the Continent, the New York Times reports.

Poland initially said it would dispatch 14 of its 200-odd stock of Leopard 2s, before committing a further 60. While in Kyiv for last Friday’s anniversary, Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki confirmed the first four had arrived in Ukraine – the first Western-made tanks to face Russia in war – although the country hadn’t yet finished training the Ukrainians on how to use them.

Finland and Spain both led early calls on Germany to allow delivery of their vehicles to Ukraine. The Scandinavian country sharing Russia’s longest European land border has since said it will supply mine-clearing vehicles only. Spain has since reportedly discovered many of its Leopard 2s require months of refurbishment before being of use.

Security experts say European militaries would face a serious shortage of tanks over the next two or three years while production of new vehicles catches up. For its part, industry is reticent to ramp up output without long-term deals from defence ministries.

Over the nearly eight decades since the end of the Second World War, Europe lost its appetite for military spending. Despite years of prodding from the US, NATO countries only recently agreed to spend at least two percent of their GDP on defence by 2024. One year away from that deadline, less than a third of members had crossed that threshold.

This chronic underinvestment was thrown into sharp relief when it came time to deliver on promises made to Ukraine. In early February, former top general Sir Richard Barrons said the British Armed Forces would run out of ammunition in a day if it fought Russia.

Financial aid has also been slow to arrive, with Ukraine’s finance ministry taking receipt of less than half of the €64billion (£57billion) pledged by the West as of December last year, according to the Kiel Institute.

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