- Western countries have sent Ukraine billions in military aid since Russia attacked in February 2022.
- Getting that aid to Ukraine has been one problem, but getting it to the frontlines is another.
- For a military at war, it’s a challenge to get the right gear to the right troops at the right time.
The Ukrainian military and public’s will to fight was a key reason that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plan for a quick military victory failed last year, at times making up for Ukraine’s disadvantages in troops and equipment.
But if grit was important to Ukraine’s early successes, Western military support has been vital to Ukraine’s progress since then.
A coalition of dozens of countries has provided or committed to provide close to $60 billion in military aid to Ukraine since the war started on February 24, 2022.
That aid ranges from main battle tanks and anti-tank missiles to Soviet-era artillery pieces and modern M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, as well as other important hardware like millions of rounds of small-arms ammunition, night-vision goggles, and armored vehicles.
Western countries have scrambled to deliver that gear to Ukraine, overcoming political debates and logistical hurdles, but getting it to the frontlines presents a whole other problem.
Many moving parts
Even the most modern weapons can’t benefit the Ukrainians if they don’t get to relevant units in a timely manner.
Like any large military, especially one that has grown very quickly during a conflict, Ukraine’s forces face problems moving weapons and equipment to the frontlines and among units.
“The main thing you hear on the front lines is the Ukrainian military, like any large force in a big war, has internal distribution problems, so a lot of their gripes have to do with their own logistics,” Michael Kofman, director of the Russia Studies Program at CNA, a research organization, said on a March episode of the Geopolitics Decanted podcast, which was recorded shortly after Kofman returned from a trip to Ukraine.
“Things enter Ukraine but then all Ukrainian units have to find their way to getting those things, and there’s a lot of challenges in that,” Kofman added. “Anyone’s who ever seen a military operation — the best military operation, with US logistics — will see those issues, where one unit has one thing, another one doesn’t.
US Air Force Maj. Gen. Steven Edwards, commander of Special Operations Command Europe, hinted at those kinds of logistical difficulties during an event in September, saying that getting “equipment and resourcing into our partners has proved to be very, very difficult.”
The restricted operational environment makes Ukraine’s logistics that much harder. US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq enjoyed complete air superiority, allowing planes and helicopters to resupply ground forces at will.
Ukraine doesn’t have that capability, though its forces have also prevented Russia’s military from controlling the air, which can allow Ukrainian troops to transport supplies on the ground without the threat of attack from Russian aircraft.
Most of the Ukrainian logistics issues stem from the confusion and difficulty of furnishing the frontline units with what they need when they need it. Kofman said he didn’t hear complaints about how much material has supplied but rather frustration about accessing the material that has been sent to Ukraine.
“It’s not, ‘hey, the US isn’t giving us enough things.’ It’s much more of, ‘how do I get access to the things that supposedly we’ve been given,'” Kofman said on the podcast. “There’s never enough kit. It’s a large force, it’s a growing force, and there’s just never enough equipment for them, so they’re all trying to kit up as best they can.”
Getting the right gear to the right place is “a process with a lot of moving parts,” an Army Green Beret serving in a National Guard unit told Insider.
“The logistics folks need to make sure that they are delivering what the guys on the frontlines need. That’s harder than it sounds. There needs to be constant communication between supply and demand,” the Special Forces operator said, speaking anonymously because they weren’t cleared to talk to the media.
Further complicating the situation is the fact that the Ukrainian military is a dynamic force. It pursued a number of reforms and other changes in the years after Russia’s 2014 attack, and it has grown continuously since Moscow attacked last year, integrating new troops and new equipment to better defend against the invasion.
In July 2022, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told The Times of London that 130,000 people had joined the Territorial Defense Forces by the 10th day of the war. Between the military and other forces, like police, “we are around a million strong,” Reznikov said.
Outfitting new units while supporting units that are already in combat is a tricky balance. It’s not just about distributing guns and bullets. Many Ukrainian troops are also rotating through the US and European countries for training.
Distributing intelligence is also a challenge for Ukrainian forces and their Western partners, who have to ensure that information gets to units that can use it in a timely fashion.
This intelligence has allowed the Ukrainian forces to strike major blows to Russian forces — like the sinking of the Russian guided-missile cruiser Moskva in the Black Sea in April 2022, which was accomplished with the help of US officials who confirmed the ship’s location.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate. He is working toward a master’s degree in strategy and cybersecurity at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies.