Better arms for Ukraine, zero response from Russia – Pavel K. Baev

No cease-fire can possibly
mute artillery barrages in Donbas, but the intensity of political battles
exceeds the intensity of this cannonade. Russian stubborn and costly attacks on
Bakhmut may yield only tactical success, but in geo-strategic terms, it is the
shift in Western positions on supplying heavy arms to Ukraine that signifies
the most significant development in the war since the start of 2023. The
initiative came from Paris, as President Emmanuel Macron announced the decision
to provide the AMX-10RC wheeled reconnaissance vehicle, which he described as “light
”. The follow-up was the coordinated
decision by US President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Olav Scholz to grant
Ukraine infantry fighting vehicles M2
and Marder-1,
respectively. The UK is uncharacteristically absent from this initiative, but
it is reportedly contemplating the decision on the heaviest type of weapons –
the Challenger-2
main battle tank.

The importance of these
decisions is not in changing the balance of forces on the battlefield, but in
altering political judgements on the course of the war in the coming months. In
the trench warfare dominated by artillery, lightly armored vehicles are not
particularly useful, and the arrival of three different types of such tanks-lite
is certain to create problems with supply chains and maintenance. But on the
political plateau, the hard question that is hanging over every Western choice
for providing a new type of weapons for Ukraine is – How will Moscow respond? The
concern about triggering a further escalation of the destructive war has been evident
in key Western capitals since its beginning a year ago, when the proposition
for enforcing a no-fly-zone
was debated – and rejected.

Several other
decisions were carefully measured and approved, and perhaps the most impactful
among them was the US delivery of M142
high-precision multiple rocket launchers,
which targeted the bridges across the River Dnipro and compelled the Russian
command to execute the withdrawal from the Kherson region. The option that had
been long-debated was the supply of MIM-104
surface-to-air missile system, and
the escalation of Russian missile strikes on the Ukrainian energy
infrastructure convinced the Biden administration in the urgent need for building
such defense around Kyiv. Worries about Russian responses evaporated when
President Vladimir Putin declared that Russian missiles would easily “knock
” the batteries of old and ineffectual
Patriots, so Germany had few doubts about sending its
own missiles
of this type to Ukraine.

In fact, the upgraded
air defense system built around the Patriot missiles can effectively intercept
Russian cruise missiles, even of newer types, while Russia’s ability to deliver
massive attacks will be increasingly diminished by the limited
. The dilemma
of expending expensive missiles for intercepting cheap drones imported from
Iran will also go away as Ukraine deploy better-equipped teams of drone-hunters,
which can cover all vulnerable directions. Russian strategy of air war against
Ukraine is set to fail, and the top brass are perfectly aware of this prospect,
but they cannot invent any combination of effective counter-measures.

Russia’s inability
to produce punishing responses to accumulating military and political setbacks
was exposed in the early December, when Ukraine delivered long-distance
on two airbases (Dyagilevo and
Engels), which hosted long-range bombers. The noisy gang of military-patriotic
bloggers demanded a devastating retaliation for this first-ever
on Russia’s strategic assets, but
nothing of any import ensued, so Engels was hit
the second time
in late December. Unsurprisingly,
after much messaging regarding the consequences of the deployment of Patriot
missiles, Moscow opted to shrug the matter off, and the in the similar way, the
decision on delivering Marder IFVs and other light armor is ignored. Russian
leadership tried to make a big show out of sending the Admiral Gorshkov frigate
armed with new Tsirkon
hypersonic missiles, but even the jingoist commentators
are skeptical about this cruise.

This pattern of feeble
reaction is increasingly embarrassing for Moscow because every new step forward
in providing arms for Ukraine is typically accompanied by loud debates in
Berlin, Paris or Washington DC. It is in fact, much easier for the Kremlin to ignore
the expanding military cooperation between Ukraine and Turkey, which started
with the now-famous TB2
drones and now includes even cluster
artillery munitions
, because Ankara as well
as Kyiv are careful not to advertise it with great fanfare. The pressure to do
something is building up in Moscow, and the attempt to fake a response, as the
Defense Ministry attempted with the alleged missile hit on Kramatorsk
after the Ukrainian devastating strike on Makiivka
only make the matters worse.

The next decision
currently in the making in the Western coalition is about arming the Ukrainian
forces with Leopard
main battle tanks, and Moscow most
probably will opt again for pretending that its advanced anti-tank weapon
systems would easily neutralize this threat. The big difference with this
prospect is that several hundred of these tanks – rather than a few dozen of
IFVs – could be delivered. This new capability will not only deny Russia any
chance for launching a new offensive in the spring but would also grant Ukraine
a serios opportunity for executing a new breakthrough, perhaps in the direction
of Melitopol, that might amount to a decisive turn in the course of the war.
The success of such operation would depend upon the one after next decision in
Washington DC – on supplying Ukraine with the MGM-140
missiles that could hit Russian
logistical hubs and command centers to the depth of 300 km.

Russian forces
have no defense against such strikes and no similar capabilities, and the only way
it could respond is to begin preparations – rather than usual empty threats –
for using non-strategic nuclear weapons. This would signify a long and risky
leap on the proverbial ladder of escalation, and the combination of Western
deterrence and Chinese dissuasion can effectively discourage President Putin
from such irresponsible strategic acrobatics.  

Pavel K. Baev, Dr., Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO)

Dr. Pavel K. Baev is a Research Professor at the Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO). He is also Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for the U.S. and Europe at the Brookings Institution (Washington D.C.), Senior Associate Researcher at the Institut Français des Relations Internationales(IFRI, Paris), and Senior Associate Research Fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI, Milan). His research interests include the transformation of the Russian military, the energy and security dimensions of the Russian-European relations, Russia’s Arctic policy, Russia-China partnership, post-Soviet conflict management in the Caucasus and the Caspian Basin, and Russia’s Middle East policy, which is supported by the Norwegian Foreign Ministry. He writes a weekly column in Eurasia Daily Monitor.

To cite this work: Pavel K. Baev, Better arms for Ukraine, zero response from Russia, for good”, Panorama, Online, 16 January 2023,

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