Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Giving Ukraine Heavy Weapons is Deterrence, Not Escalation

| Sep. 28, 2022

Ukraine has recently signaled to Washington that it needs long-range missile systems to continue with its impressive offensive that has, according to Zelensky, brought back under Ukrainian control more than 6,000 square kilometers. The U.S. should fulfill Ukraine’s request as it will end the war sooner and save many more lives, including from Russia’s terrorizing mass murders recently revealed in the city of Izyum.

So far, the Pentagon has said that long-range missile systems (reaching targets at around 280 kilometers) are not currently needed. This echoes the Biden administration’s prevoius fears of escalation, which in turn echoed what prominent Western outlets have suggested in the past – that Ukraine should focus less on victory and consider land concessions to avoid intensifying the conflict with Russia. This argument contrasts with what Ukrainians are telling me on the ground in Kyiv since the February invasion: more weapons swiftly delivered to Ukraine will decrease Ukrainian casualties and hold an expansionist Russia accountable.

I travelled through Ukraine on the day when more than 40 missiles struck the country while Russia ‘congratulated’ Ukraine’s official European Union candidate status and G7 nations gathered to discuss Russia’s war against Ukraine. The next morning, I heard an explosion nearby of a missile that hit a residential building, killing one person and burying a girl and her mother under rubble. A day later, Russia purposefully targeted a mall full of civilians in the city of Kremenchuk, killing 21 people and wounding nearly 60 others. Over two weeks later, the tragedy of Vinnytsia happened as Russia killed at least 26 people.

Ukraine needs similar military means to Russia’s and in generous quantities: air defense, long-range heavy artillery, jets, and long-range missiles. This is the Kremlin’s language, and it is what will push the Russians back to Russia. The Russians know this, which is why they make nuclear threats. They fear Ukraine gaining the upper hand and they fear the crumbling of the morale among Russian troops.

For years, Russia has warned NATO to step away from what the Kremlin considers its backyard. Vladimir Putin has repeatedly mentioned his infamous red line warnings to President Joe Biden, and the Russian administration has described sanctions as an act of war. Russia has also warned the U.S. not to provide weapons to Ukraine, especially heavy-artillery, fighter jets, and long-range missiles, while using those exact means against Ukrainian civilians and soldiers.

Considering that Russia has fired at least 3,000 missiles against Ukraine since the full-scale invasion, Ukraine needs effective air defense systems. Ukraine needs offensive weapons that can reach the heart of Russia, not for the purpose of targeting Russians, but for deterrence. Ukraine also needs long-range missiles so that it can use them in more secure locations, closer to the west of the country which is more difficult for the Russians to reach.

The West should abundantly supply Ukraine with a combination of long-range missiles, long-distance multi-launch rocket systems, fighter jets, and more heavy artillery. The deterrence approach has already been somewhat effective in the Black Sea, where Ukraine has Harpoon anti-ship missiles supplied by Great Britain and Denmark, as well as Neptune missiles that can travel up to 280 kilometers. Ukraine can assure the West that it will not use the weapons against Russian territory, and it will follow through as it needs the constant flow of weapons. Russia, however, will still be cautious knowing Ukraine’s capabilities.

If Russia were to use tactical nuclear weapons, the country that would be directly harmed is Ukraine. Russia has been escalating the lethality of its weapons since its invasion in 2014. Putin’s approach is to build on previous atrocities by normalizing them, then to ramp up lethality. First, Russia invaded Ukraine by annexing Crimea and attacking Donbas, and eight years later it built an army of roughly 200,000 troops across Ukraine’s border only to invade the country full-fledge. Since February 24th it has been using rape, intimidation, torture and execution of civilians, launched thousands of missiles against Ukraine (including hypersonic), dropped a 525-kilogram bomb on a drama theater in Mariupol which was used as a shelter by hundreds of women and children. It then allegedly used an unknown substance (possibly chemical) against Ukrainian soldiers in Mariupol causing respiratory damage, has been allegedly using white phosphorus, cluster bombs, as well as the highly-lethal Solntsepek flamethrower. There are numerous war crimes committed by Russia including hundreds of children killed.

It is high time to reverse who dictates the red lines, especially as Russia’s military has been significantly weakened by the Ukrainians. The Kremlin, stuck in mid-twentieth-century strategic thinking, and attempting to reverse the outcome of the Cold War, only understands the language of basic military strength. This can be clearly seen as Russia decided to bomb Ukrainian grainat the Odesa Port in less than a day after Ukraine and Russia signed an agreement backed by the United Nations to resume grain exports via the Black Sea. Russia will change its self-perception if it sees a Ukraine, equipped with Western weapons, that is capable of firmly and quickly striking back. In the end, the West will save many more lives and will save on both the military and economic costs in the long run. The alternative is an emboldened, aggressive and barbaric Russia that is increasingly willing to terrorize civilians to achieve its imperialistic goals with an embittered West hesitant to spend more on military and economic support for Ukraine.

Ilya Timtchenko is a Master in Public Policy candidate at Harvard Kennedy School and is founder and chair of the Ukraine Caucus, a student organization at HKS. He is a Belfer Young Leader Student Fellow. Before studying at Harvard, Ilya worked as a journalist in Ukraine since 2014. 


For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Timtchenko, Ilya.“Giving Ukraine Heavy Weapons is Deterrence, Not Escalation.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, September 28, 2022.

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