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Monday, August 15, 2022

Stingers could be a game-changer in the battle for Ukraine

As the world awaits a pending Russian move on Ukraine, military experts are examining the various scenarios for a Russian invasion. With more than 100,000 Russian military forces deployed along the border, Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinFive things to know about the controversial Beijing Olympics Why is Putin so confident these days? Senators on precipice of Russia sanctions deal MORE has an array of invasion options before him. President BidenJoe BidenWhite House lights up in red, white and blue to cheer Team USA for Olympics Kansas governor vetoes proposed redistricting map Overnight Energy & Environment — Biden’s Fed pick draws GOP heat on climate MORE informed Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky last week that an attack may occur within two weeks.

By European standards, Ukraine is a large country, roughly equal in size to France but with only two-thirds of the population, at 45 million. Russian forces are deployed approximately along an 1,800-mile front stretching from the Ukrainian border with Belarus to the Sea of Azov near the Black Sea. Ukrainian officials are increasingly feeling a sense of encirclement in the shape of a giant Russian boa constrictor descending upon their country from the north, south and east, creating a guessing game as to where the brunt of a potential attack might fall.  

North of Kyiv, Putin has exacerbated Ukrainian fears by playing the Belarus card, organizing the Allied Resolve military exercises by dispatching 5,000 troops that could reach as high as 30,000. These exercises will linger into mid-February and create the specter of a potential invasion. An attack from neighboring Belarus is an intriguing option but unlikely because of the massive Pripyat swamps that dominate most of the Ukraine-Belarus border. Its marshy terrain is highly unsuitable to mechanized warfare, while the other part of Ukraine’s northeastern border with Belarus is flanked by the highly radioactive Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, complicating these two routes as a potential invasion corridor.

In eastern Ukraine, Donbas is frequently cited as the likely point for a Russian invasion because of the ongoing hostilities there with Russian-supported separatists. Donbas is where the bulk of Ukraine’s 245,000 armed forces are deployed against Russian forces in a war-torn landscape dominated by a vast maze of barbed wire and trenches reminiscent of World War I. 

To Ukraine’s south there is the threat of a Russian attack emanating from northern Crimea in a bid to capture the Ukrainian ports of Odessa and Kherson, which is where the strategic Nova Kakhovka water supplies are located. The strategic dams at Nova Kakhovka previously provided the Crimean Peninsula with most of its fresh water and were shut down by Ukraine in 2014. Moscow is heightening Kyiv’s concerns further by conducting major naval exercises in the region and bringing six landing ships to the Black Sea in the coming days, which may be used as part of an amphibious naval assault. 

It is in the northeastern direction of Ukraine, across the Russian border in the Bryansk region, that worries officials in Kyiv the most. The Bryansk region would be the springboard for an attack on the Kyiv-Chernihiv autobahn, a strategic roadway that leads straight to the Ukrainian capital. This roadway is particularly enticing to the Kremlin because it is the starting point for Ukraine’s 139-kilometer, four-lane autobahn to Kyiv. Russian forces could threaten the Ukrainian capital in a matter of hours after crossing the border and would follow a familiar pattern of attack used by the Kremlin to target the Georgian capital of Tbilisi in its 2008 war with Georgia.

Putin attaches great strategic significance to Kyiv because he views the Ukrainian capital as the cradle of Slavic civilization. Seizing it could cause the sudden collapse of the Ukrainian government and paralyze Ukrainian forces fighting in Donbas. Defending the Chernihiv-Kyiv invasion corridor likely would be Ukraine’s first line of defense. With proper Western assistance, however, the United States and its NATO allies could help Ukraine turn the strategic autobahn into another “Highway of Death” for invading Russian forces, similar to the fate that fell upon Iraqi armored forces as they retreated from Kuwait in 1991, when U.S. forces destroyed over 1,400 armored vehicles.

With over 1,000 Javelin anti-tank missiles in its growing arsenal, the Ukrainian army now has a force-multiplying weapon in its hands to stop a Russian attack. The dense forests that adjoin the autobahn make it a perfect place for Ukraine’s Javelin-equipped, tank-hunting units to attack Russian armored columns. The forests, however, are also a liability that could prevent Ukraine from deploying armored forces to protect the Javelin-equipped units. These forces would be highly vulnerable to air attacks by Russian Ka-50 helicopters, which could neutralize these pockets of defense because of Ukraine’s shortage of air defense weaponry.

The United States could swiftly rectify this problem by transferring Stinger man-portable air defense weapons to Ukraine that would dramatically reduce the Russian advantage — and may even deter Moscow from pursuing this invasion scenario. Until recently, the White House had prevented the transfer of Stinger missiles from Lithuania to Ukraine, but this decision was reversed last week when Lithuania received approval to send its older-version Stingers to Ukraine. The Biden administration should be applauded for taking this step, but it needs to expedite the transfer of more modern Stingers before Moscow acts. 

The transfer of Stingers, combined with the presence of the Javelins and much-needed Javelin simulators to rapidly train Ukrainian forces in their use, would significantly augment Ukrainian military capabilities and strengthen the defense of Kyiv. They would also turn the Chernihiv-Kyiv autobahn into Putin’s Highway of Death. 

As the arsenal of democracy, it is America’s moral obligation to send Stingers to Ukraine, which could be a game-changer on the battlefield, just as they were with the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Glen Howard is president of the Jamestown Foundation and an expert on Russia and Eurasia. He is the co-author of “Russia’s Military Strategy and Doctrine.”

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