Ukraine seeks to strengthen itself against the threat of Russia. The government of President Volodymyr Zelensky is asking for help from its Western partners to arm the army and improve its training. Kiev has tripled its defense budget since 2013 and has received funds, loans and weapons from the United States and the United Kingdom, but its figures are incomparable to those of Moscow. In full escalation of tension due to the concentration of tens of thousands of Russian soldiers around its borders, the United States, the United Kingdom and countries such as Lithuania or Latvia have already approved the shipment of defensive weapons. Meanwhile, Germany refuses to provide military support to Kiev and vetoes shipments of German-made defense material from third countries.
The Kremlin accuses NATO of turning Ukraine (which has aspired to membership since 2008) into a covert military base for the Alliance and maintains that the shipments and sales of weapons to Kiev, as well as the projects with instructors on the ground that Ukraine has with partners like Canada, they are a threat to their security. This week, Dmitri Peskov, the spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, warned that Western arms supplies to Ukraine are “extremely dangerous” and accused Kiev’s allies of escalating tensions.
The Ukrainian army is no longer the handful of soldiers with obsolete equipment eight years ago, when Russia introduced unflagged soldiers and military spies to the Crimean peninsula and annexed it in a referendum deemed illegal by the international community. Nor the troops with scant bulletproof vests and old Soviet helmets who fought in the first battles in Donbas against the pro-Russian separatists supported politically and militarily by the Kremlin.
Kiev, which has been at war for eight years in the east of the country, now spends 4% of its GDP on defense, compared to 1.6% in 2013, according to figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri). Russia, around 4.5%, according to Sipri, although specialists warn that Moscow, which is developing new weapons —including a catalog of hypersonic missiles—, dedicates more unidentified items to its military development.
The comparison of forces is far from balanced. Russia has some 900,000 active duty troops compared to Ukraine’s 209,000 military, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and also has a wide catalog of equipment and aircraft. But the balance is tilted above all by its ability in artillery, says the Ukrainian military expert Mykailo Samus. In fact, Moscow has already shown part of that catalog these days by transferring Iskander missiles for its joint maneuvers with Minsk in Belarus. This gap can be a problem for Ukraine, says specialist Samus, who also warns that no European country has adequate defense in this field. “Kiev needs anti-missile material,” he says.
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Ukraine has been buying weapons through agreements with the United States, the United Kingdom, Lithuania, France or Turkey, which has supplied it with armed drones. Although the Ukrainian Defense Ministry claims it is receiving “unprecedented” military aid, President Zelensky has moved to try to beef up with more sophisticated equipment, air defense systems, cyber defense and electronic warfare. NATO has stressed that in the event of a new Russian military aggression against Ukraine it will not send troops; Washington doesn’t have that option on the table either, but the United States has provided Kiev with more than $2.5 billion in military aid since 2014, in addition to drones, Javelin anti-tank missiles and armored vehicles and approved the sale of patrol boats.
Now, as Russia continues to mobilize troops surrounding Ukraine, the US State Department has authorized NATO Baltic allies Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania to send US-made missiles to Kiev. Export regulations oblige these countries to request authorization to transfer to third parties the weapons obtained as a result of their agreements with Washington. The Czech government is also proposing to send artillery shells to Ukraine. And the UK has already this month supplied anti-tank missiles and trainers to Kiev and recently provided it with a loan of some 2 billion euros to modernize its navy.
Ukraine lost almost 80% of its naval capabilities and infrastructure with the illegal annexation of Crimea, which Moscow has since used as a fundamental center for its operations, for example, in Syria or Libya. Since then, says Orysia Lutsevych, researcher and director of the Chatham House Ukraine Forum, it has also dominated the Black Sea, where it also shares waters with three NATO countries (Bulgaria, Turkey and Romania). “Russia has much more military capability and dominance in the air, which is key. This assistance from Western partners can help inflict a higher cost on Russia in the event of an invasion, slow down the process and even deter it,” says Lutsevych, “but it also has an important symbolic component for Putin, who must perceive that the West does not realize given up on Ukraine.”
While the United States and the United Kingdom announce arms deliveries to Ukraine, the German government remains firm in its refusal to export weapons, to the despair of the Ukrainian authorities, who ask it to reconsider its position. Ukraine’s anger with Germany is also due to the fact that Olaf Scholz’s government is blocking the shipment of weapons to Kiev even through third countries. As published on Friday Wall Street Journal, Berlin has vetoed the shipment from Estonia of weapons of German origin by not issuing the necessary permits for it.
The Ukrainian government has criticized Germany for the veto, although it hopes to redirect the matter. “We are disappointed by Germany’s continued refusal to authorize the delivery of defensive weapons to Ukraine, especially in the current situation,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told the German newspaper. world on Sunday.
Germany has had a very restrictive arms export policy for years, which in principle does not allow the delivery of lethal weapons to conflict zones. This decision, also included in the coalition agreement between Social Democrats, Greens and Liberals, has a historic dimension, as the German Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock, recalled last week. The German invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II, which caused millions of Russian victims, is still very present in the collective imagination.
In Ukraine, anger has also spread after learning of the controversial statements by the head of the Navy, Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach, who said he was in favor of giving Vladimir Putin the respect he “deserves” and was in favor of an alliance with Russia against Russia. China. This pro-Russian sentiment is not a rarity in Germany, quite the opposite, manifested without going any further in the presence of high-level politicians on the boards of large Russian corporations. Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder at Gazprom is perhaps the most paradigmatic example. In recent years, both countries have established a strategic partnership that is highly focused on energy and trade. Conservative politicians, such as the leader of the Bavarian CSU, Markus Söder, have spoken out these days against approving harsh sanctions against Russia and the chancellor himself, Olaf Scholz, spoke of “prudence” when designing the sanctions.
Berlin is one of the world’s largest arms exporters, behind only the United States, Russia and France. Last year, thanks to the approval in the last days of Angela Merkel’s mandate of several agreements worth 5,000 million euros, exports reached a record figure. In total, Germany sold more than 9,000 million in weapons, according to data from the Ministry of Economy. The main recipient is Egypt, despite intensifying criticism for human rights violations and for its participation in the conflicts in Yemen and Syria.
The Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, had to acknowledge last week in Berlin that there are different positions among the NATO member states regarding the shipment of weapons: “NATO supports Ukraine, we support it in practice from the point of view of from a political point of view, and we support its defense institutions, for example with the training and improvement of the capabilities of its Navy”. At his side, Olaf Scholz once again recalled that Germany has “a clear principle” on arms sales: “We do not export lethal weapons and that has not changed,” he assured.
Faced with pressure from Ukraine, the German government is responding for the time being with other types of aid, such as a field hospital that it will install next month. Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht announced in an interview on Saturday that 5.3 million euros will be allocated to finance it. Hospitals of the Bundeswehr (German Armed Forces) are already treating critically wounded Ukrainian soldiers. Lambrecht insisted on the message that all members of Scholz’s new tripartite government are giving: “The supply of weapons would not be useful at this time.”
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