The Ultimate Winners in Ukraine are the World’s Arms Merchants

By Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS (IDN) — The war in Ukraine may not be a head-on conflict between Russia and the United States but it is certainly a battle between the heavily-stocked military arsenals of two of the world’s major military and nuclear powers.

At a press briefing March 22, UN Secretary-General António Guterres was forcefully explicit when he said the war in Ukraine “is unwinnable”.

“Sooner or later, it will have to move from the battlefield to the peace table. This is inevitable. The only question is: How many more lives must be lost? How many more bombs must fall?  How many more Mariupols must be destroyed?”

“How many more Ukrainians and Russians will be killed before everyone realizes that this war has no winners—only losers?” he asked.

But judging by the staggering array of weapons deployed since the Russian invasion on February 24, the ultimate winners will likely be the world’s arms merchants, as defense stocks have been rising against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine.

Armed with Western weapons systems, mostly from the US, the Ukrainian armed forces are giving the Russians a run for their rubles. But Russia’s military forces are armed with some of the most sophisticated weapons compared with Ukraine, including hypersonic missiles deployed for the first the time March 19.

Still, the Biden administration, which is trying to boost the Ukrainian military, has authorized an additional $800 million in military aid to Ukraine bringing the total to more than $2.0 billion, which is part of a hefty $13 billion US aid package, both military and humanitarian.

US President Joe Biden, who called Russian President Vladimir Putin “a war criminal” and “thug” announced a new security assistance package that includes 800 anti-aircraft systems, “primarily to stop attacking planes and helicopters before they destroy more of Ukraine”; 9,000 anti-armour systems to destroy tanks and armored vehicles; 7,000 small arms, including machine guns and grenade launchers; and 20 million rounds of ammunition.

At a press briefing March 19, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said: “We’re also helping Ukraine acquire longer-range anti-aircraft systems and munitions, at President Zelenskyy’s request. And I have been in almost daily contact with Foreign Minister Kuleba, coordinating to respond swiftly to Ukraine’s most urgent needs.”

Blinken also told reporters that “our allies and partners continue to step up with their own significant shipments of security assistance. I’ve authorized more than a dozen countries to provide US-origin equipment, and dozens more around the world have provided security assistance of their own.”

“I’d also note that, in addition to assistance from the Department of Defense, we’re sending support from other agencies, including $10 million worth of armored vehicles from our own Diplomatic Security Service,” he noted.

As for weapons from Western powers, the New York Times said March 3: The Dutch are sending rocket launchers for air defense. The Estonians are sending Javelin antitank missiles. The Poles and the Latvians are sending Stinger surface-to-air missiles. The Czechs are sending machine guns, sniper rifles, pistols and ammunition.

Even formerly neutral countries like Sweden and Finland are sending weapons. And Germany, long allergic to sending weapons into conflict zones, is sending Stingers as well as other shoulder-launched rockets.

In all, the Times pointed out, about 20 countries—mostly members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU), but not all, are supplying arms to Ukraine.

Britain’s gift was the Next Generation Light Anti-Tank Weapon (NLAWs), a product of the Swedish-based Saab, but which is assembled in a factory in Belfast.

According to the New York Times, Britain has sent 4,200 NLAWs to Ukraine, a weapon described as “one of the best short range defensive anti-tank weapons around”.

All these weapons supplied to Ukraine—mostly as military or security assistance—have to be replaced by the donor nations sooner or later.

Dr Natalie J. Goldring, a Visiting Professor of the Practice in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, told IDN the US government is walking an extremely fine line —trying to defend Ukraine without being drawn into direct conflict with Russia. There are so many ways this could go badly.

“The US government seems to have assumed that its declared objective of helping Ukraine defend itself will be viewed in that light by Russian President Putin. Instead, Russia is viewing US and NATO weapons transfers as offensive acts. Undertaking transfers of defensive weapons is probably a risk worth taking, but it’s important to consider the possible consequences and try to decrease the associated risks,” she said.

Although much of the focus has been on conventional weapons for example, Russia’s President Putin has already brought possible nuclear weapons use into the conflict by increasing the readiness of Russian nuclear forces.

The risk of nuclear use because of accident, miscalculation, or President Putin’s desire to “win” the war is unacceptably high, said Dr Goldring who also represents the Acronym Institute at the United Nations on conventional weapons and arms trade issues.

“We should learn from the current instability and fear of Russian nuclear weapons use. This should strengthen the world’s understanding of the need for nuclear disarmament and the full implementation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Nuclear weapons can only exacerbate this conflict and risk enormous loss of life; they have no useful role,” she noted.  

Analysts often draw a distinction between offensive and defensive weapons. Ukraine is a strong example of why the best answer to fighting a tank is often not another tank. In Ukraine’s case, they’re using anti-tank weapons effectively to defend themselves against Russian attacks, in a situation where they’re vastly out-armed. 

“The immediate pressure to help arm Ukrainian forces to defend themselves is intense. But it is also important to remember to think about the longer term. The US supplied Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to the mujahideen in Afghanistan and was subsequently unable to account for many of them”, warned Dr Goldring.

“In the rush to get weapons to Ukrainian forces, it’s not clear what the safeguards are. Who will be making sure these weapons get to their intended recipients? How will we keep these weapons from falling into Russian hands?”

And once again, she pointed out, the incentives are powerful for the US weapons manufacturers to continue to be actively involved in selling weapons wherever the US government permits.

“It’s not surprising that Raytheon and Lockheed Martin’s stock prices have surged since the Russian invasion,” Dr Goldring said.

On February 28, the London Guardian ran story under the headline: “Defense and cybersecurity stocks climb amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine”.

Raytheon Technologies, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman were cited as registering increases in their share prices in the stock market.

Meanwhile, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effect in populated areas heightens the likelihood of unlawful, indiscriminate, and disproportionate attacks. These weapons have a large destructive radius, are inherently inaccurate, or deliver multiple munitions at the same time.

“Long-term effects of their use include damage to civilian buildings and critical infrastructure, interference with services such as health care and education, and displacement of the local population.”

HRW said Russia and Ukraine should avoid using explosive weapons in populated areas.

Every country, including Russia and Ukraine, should support a strong political declaration that includes a commitment to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effect in populated areas.

Meanwhile, at a press briefing March 21, UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said “since February 24, more than 10 million people have been forced from their homes in search of safety and security – nearly a quarter of the population of Ukraine”.

This includes an estimated 6.5 million men, women and children who are internally displaced, and that’s according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and nearly 3.5 million people who have crossed international borders out of Ukraine as refugees, according to the UN Refugee Agency.

Humanitarian organizations are concerned about the risk of trafficking and sexual exploitation and IOM has scaled up its trafficking prevention measures, providing verified and safe information to refugees and third-country nationals on the move. IOM has also reinforced its regional hotlines to help people with important safety and resource information.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says it has verified six additional reports of attacks on health care in Ukraine yesterday. As of 20 March, WHO has verified 52 attacks on health care in 25 days. [IDN-InDepthNews – 22 March 2022]

Thalif Deen is a former Director, Foreign Military Markets at Defense Marketing Services; Senior Defense Analyst at Forecast International; and military editor Middle East/Africa at Jane’s Information Group, US.

Photo: Laser Weapon System (LaWS) on USS Ponce. Credit: US Navy

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