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Why is the US sending 'downgraded' weaponry to Ukraine?

Roman Goncharenko
March 25, 2023

Howitzers without GPS, rocket launchers restricted to short-range: The US is sending Ukraine weapons with critical limitations. Observers say US officials are trying to avoid a confrontation with Russia.

three soldiers operating an M777 howitzer
Ukrainian soldiers prepare to fire at Russian positions with a US-supplied M777 howitzerImage: AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky/picture alliance

Whether Leopard 2 battle tanks from Norway, or MiG-29 fighter jets from Slovakia, Ukraine receives pledges for the delivery of heavy weapons from its international allies almost daily. On March 20, the United States announced a new military aid package worth $350 million (€325 million). But the M1 Abrams main battle tanks previously promised were not included.

US officials said they were seeking to shorten delivery times and they would deliver older models by fall. In January, Politico reported that, because of export regulations, the United States intended to strip the Abrams tanks of their classified armor package, which includes depleted uranium, before sending them to Ukraine.

Gustav Gressel, a senior policy fellow who specializes in armed conflict and military affairs at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told DW that this is nothing unusual. "Ukraine is receiving the export variant of the Abrams, the same ones that are used in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq,” Gressel said. He added that the armor is comparable to that of the older German Leopard 2A4 tanks that Norway and, earlier, Poland had delivered to Ukraine. Gressel said the older Abrams was "still a good battle tank: It has a good thermal imaging camera and a powerful cannon, and is superior to Russian tanks in terms of handling.”

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'Captured and analyzed'

Export regulations are one of the reasons why the United States is only delivering certain weapons to Ukraine in modified editions. But that is not the only reason. "In Ukraine, they are asking themselves what would happen if a tank would be left behind and would be captured and analyzed by the Russians,” Gressel said. This concern also extends to the M777 howitzers that the US has been delivering to Ukraine since April 2022. These howitzers were handed over without GPS navigation and associated onboard computers. Weapons without GPS are generally less accurate.

Ukraine's army quickly found a solution and installed its own systems, including GIS Arta military software developed in Ukraine to coordinate artillery strikes. In May, media reported that Ukraine had deployed M777 howitzers using GIS Arta software to stop the advance of a particularly large number of Russian troops crossing the Siverskyi Donets river near the village Bilohorivka in the Luhansk region. "With artillery, firing orders go much faster digitally," Gressel said. For Russia, he added, "much is still being done with radiotelephony."

Serhiy Hrabsky, a former officer in Ukraine's armed forces, told DW that he is not concerned by the limitations of weapons systems sent by Ukraine's allies. "All guidance information systems are integrated into NATO command structures," Hrabsky said. They can only be used in the framework of NATO tasks." He said this was common practice and Ukraine used its own systems.

Ukrainian forces have thwarted Russia's advance with the help of international armsImage: Libkos/AP Photo/picture alliance

Short-range HIMARS launchers

The situation is different with US-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) launchers, which Ukraine has successfully been using since summer for precision strikes deep behind the front line. The United States has been supplying missiles with a range of about 80 kilometers (50 miles), but not the far-more-powerful Army Tactical Missile System missiles, which can hit targets up to 300 kilometers away.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the United States modified these rocket launchers prior to delivery so that missiles with a longer range could not be fired — even if Ukraine could procure them on the global market. The paper cited an anonymous source from the US government as saying the decision was made to reduce the risk of escalating the standoff between the United States and Russia. In September, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said long-range missiles would be a "red line" that would make the United States a party to the conflict. Gressel said the technical limitations could be reversed on the HIMARS launchers should the United States choose to do so.

Stephen Blank, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who specializes in Russia and a former professor at the US Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute, said the limitations on weapon systems had to do with a "fear of Russia and an escalation of the war by Russia." However, Blank said he considered such concerns exaggerated. "I think we are too afraid of a escalation by Russia," Blank said. "I don't understand why Russian territory should be excluded from Ukrainian strikes. Russia started this war and has destroyed Ukraine." On the battle field, Blank said he saw a "significant difference" in the fact that Russia could concentrate its military equipment on the border with Ukraine and "fire at will" without fearing a counterattack. "If they could not do that anymore," Blank said, "that would be a great advantage for Ukraine." Blank advocates for demonstrating that Ukraine "won't be pushed around."

At them beginning of 2023, international allies promised Ukraine missiles with a range of 150 kilometers. At the time, Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said Ukraine would pledge not to fire them into Russia. But that did not go for areas occupied by Russia.

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Blank said Ukraine's allies within Europe were more worried than US officials are. He said the administration of US President Joe Biden sought to preserve NATO unity and was therefore taking such concerns into account. The alliance has repeatedly emphasized that it is not a party to the war and will not be drawn into it. Gressel also does not think that NATO should engage directly, but he criticizes the apparent notion in the United States that the war could be "micromanaged in a way that it ends in a desired stalemate." He said that war is "too complex and too chaotic to be micromanaged."

"This just signals to Putin that he has a certain chance of winning the war by sitting it out," Gressel said. "Any restraint in Western weapon deliveries is a signal to him that we are not serious."

Russia's war in Ukraine: A timeline in pictures

On the morning of February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. According to the United Nations, thousands of soldiers and civilians have already lost their lives. A timeline of the shocking events in pictures.

general.image.copyright_prefix Anatolii Stepanov/AFP/Getty Images

A dark day for millions

On the morning of February 24, 2022, many Ukrainians woke up to explosions like these in the capital, Kyiv. Russia had launched a full-scale invasion, marking the biggest attack by one state against another since World War II. Ukraine immediately declared martial law. Civil structures were targeted, and the first deaths were reported soon after.

general.image.copyright_prefix Ukrainian President s Office/Zuma/imago images

Merciless shelling

Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke of a "special military operation," and said he aimed to capture the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Residents of the city of Mariupol in Donetsk Oblast took shelter in basements for weeks. Many died under rubble. A Russian airstrike on a theater where hundreds of people had taken refuge in March has been condemned by human rights groups.

general.image.copyright_prefix Nikolai Trishin/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

Mass exodus

The war in Ukraine has caused a rate of forced emigration unseen in Europe since World War II. According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, more than 8 million people have fled the country. Poland alone has taken in 1.5 million people, more than any other EU state. Millions of people, primarily from eastern and southern Ukraine, were forced to flee.

general.image.copyright_prefix Anatolii Stepanov/AFP

Scenes of horror in Bucha

After just a few weeks, the Ukrainian army managed to drive Russian military forces from areas in the north and northeast of the country. Russia's plan to besiege the capital, Kyiv, failed. After the regions were freed, the extent of alleged Russian atrocities became apparent. Images of tortured and murdered civilians in Bucha, near Kyiv, went around the world. Officials reported 461 deaths.

general.image.copyright_prefix Carol Guzy/ZUMA PRESS/dpa/picture alliance

Devastation and death in Kramatorsk

The number of civilian victims in Donbas increased rapidly. Officials told the civilian population to retreat to safer areas, but Russian missiles also targeted people as they attempted to escape, including in Kramatorsk. More than 61 were killed and 120 injured at the city's railway station in April, as thousands were hoping to reach safety.

general.image.copyright_prefix Seth Sidney Berry/ZUMA Press Wire/picture alliance

Sheltering from missiles

During Russian aerial attacks, millions of Ukrainians have sought refuge in shelters of some kind. For people close to the front lines within artillery range, basements have become like second homes. Residents of big cities have also sought shelter from the missiles. In Kyiv (as seen above) and Kharkiv, subway stations have double as safe havens.

general.image.copyright_prefix Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images

High nuclear risk in Zaporizhzhia

In the first weeks after the invasion, Russia occupied a large area of the southern and eastern regions of Ukraine, including near Kyiv. Fighting spilled over on to the premises of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in the southeast, which has been under Russian control ever since. The International Atomic Energy Agency sent experts to the plant and called for a safe zone around the area.

general.image.copyright_prefix Str./AFP/Getty Images

Desperate last stand in Mariupol

The Russian army held Mariupol under siege for three months, preventing shipments of ammunition and other supplies. The Asovstal steel plant was seen as the last Ukrainian stronghold in the city, sheltering thousands of soldiers and civilians. After an extended attack last May, thousands of Russian soldiers took control of the plant, capturing more than 2,000 people in the process.

general.image.copyright_prefix Dmytro 'Orest' Kozatskyi/AFP

Symbol of resistance

Russia conquered Snake Island in the Black Sea on the first day of the war. A conversation between Ukrainian and Russian service members, during which the Ukrainians refused to surrender, went viral online. In April, the Ukrainians claimed to have sunk the Russian warship Moskva, one of two vessels involved in the attack on the island. In June, Ukraine said it had driven Russians off the island.

general.image.copyright_prefix Ukraine's border guard service/AFP

Death toll unclear

The war's exact death toll remains unclear. According to the UN, at least 7,200 civilians have been killed and another 12,000 wounded — and the numbers could much higher. The exact number of Ukrainian soldiers killed is also uncertain. In December, Ukraine's presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak estimated the number as being up to 13,000. Impartial statistics aren't available.

general.image.copyright_prefix Raphael Lafargue/abaca/picture alliance

Game changer for Ukraine

The delivery of Western weapons to Ukraine has been a hot topic since the early days of the war, but Kyiv received few of them at first. The US-manufactured HIMARS rocket launchers were a definite help. They have allowed the Ukrainian military to cut off the ammunition resupply to Russian artillery, and have likely also contributed to Ukraine's successful counteroffensives.

general.image.copyright_prefix James Lefty Larimer/US Army/Zuma Wire/IMAGO

Relief at liberations

At the start of September, the Ukrainian military conducted a successful counteroffensive in the northeastern city of Kharkiv. The surprised Russians quickly retreated, leaving equipment, ammunition and even evidence of alleged war crimes behind. The Ukrainian military was also able to liberate Kherson in the south, and its residents cheered at the arrival of Ukrainian soldiers.

general.image.copyright_prefix Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

Explosion on Crimean bridge

At the beginning of October, a massive explosion occurred on the bridge Russia built across the Kerch Strait to Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula it has occupied since 2014. The bridge was partially destroyed. Russia claims an explosives-laden truck from Ukraine caused the damage, but officials in Kyiv have not claimed responsibility for any attack.

general.image.copyright_prefix AFP/Getty Images

Massive attacks on energy infrastructure

A few days after the blast on the Crimean bridge, Russia carried out its first large-scale assault on Ukraine's energy infrastructure. Power outages occurred in regions from Lviv to Kharkiv. Since then, such attacks have become common. Due to the enormous damage to power plants and other civil infrastructure, people in Ukraine have endured power outages and water shortages almost daily.

general.image.copyright_prefix Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images

European integration

Daily video messages from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in which he reports on the state of the country and the ongoing war, are viewed by millions of people. Zelenskyy hasn't only been able to unify his country's population, but has also gained Western support. European integration has progressed greatly under his leadership, and Ukraine is now on the path to EU membership.

general.image.copyright_prefix Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP

Hoping for Leopard 2 tanks

How well Ukraine can fend off Russian attacks depends greatly on the aid the country receives. A US-led group of countries has offered a billion-dollar package of humanitarian, financial and military aid. Shipping heavy artillery was hotly debated in the West, largely due to concerns about reaction from Russia. But Ukraine will end up receiving Western tanks, most of them German-made Leopard 2s.

general.image.copyright_prefix Ina Fassbender/AFP/Getty Images

Bakhmut: A city in ruins

For months, fierce battles have been raging over Bakhmut in the Donetsk region. Since Ukrainian troops lost control of the nearby settlement of Soledar in early 2023, defending the city has become even harder. In January, Germany's secret service reported daily losses in three figures on the Ukrainian side. But the Russian death toll is believed to be even higher.

general.image.copyright_prefix LIBKOS/AP/dpa/picture alliance

This article was originally written in German.

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