Ukrainian servicemen load a truck with the FGM-148 Javelin, American man-portable anti-tank missile … [+] provided by US to Ukraine as part of a military support, upon its delivery at Kyiv’s airport Boryspil on February 11,2022, amid the crisis linked with the threat of Russia’s invasion. (Photo by Sergei SUPINSKY / AFP) (Photo by SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images)
AFP via Getty Images
Resupplying Ukraine has become a worthy humanitarian exercise and a cause célèbre as the country bravely resists the Russian invasion. However, most observers expect Ukraine will eventually be cut off from resupply as Russian forces make their way to its westernmost borders. Until then, nearly all routes for arms transfers by land or by air go through Poland.
The reasons lie in proximity, topography and political conditions. Ukraine borders eastern Poland between Slovakia and the Carpathian Mountains in the south and Belarus to the north, a roughly 230-mile stretch. The terrain ranges from easily passable lowlands on the northern portion of the Poland-Ukraine border to more challenging but highly navigable Carpathian highlands near the Slovakia-Ukraine border.
Poland is a NATO member and the U.S. has a significant military presence at Polish bases, including Miroslawiec Air Base in the northwestern part of the country. Over the last decade, the U.S. Army has routed forces and equipment through Poland to western Ukraine, using it as a safe locale for U.S. military observers tracking fighting in the Donbas region since 2014.
Polish-U.S. ties have been strong historically, reinforced by large migration from Poland to the U.S. in the late 19th to early 20th centuries, American support for the Polish Solidarity movement of the late 1980s, and mutual concerns about Russian expansionism stretching back over a decade.
Given the above, Poland is a natural conduit for arms and supply transfers to Ukraine and as I’ve recently explained, a crucial portion of the NATO crescent facing Russia. On Monday a Pentagon official told CNN the U.S. and other NATO members have transferred over 2,000 Stinger anti-aircraft and 17,000 Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine, most via airlifters vectored to a secret airfield near the Ukrainian border.
Ukraine and surrounding territories with general topographical characteristics.
While its location is unknown — whether inside Ukraine or across its border — Poland offers a number of possibilities for such a supply point including a small cargo airport near Mielec just 60 miles from Ukraine’s western city of Lviv. The U.S. is reportedly using Mielec as a staging area for 82nd Airborne troops in Poland. An arena in nearby Rzeszow has also been set up as a base of operations for the Army’s 18th Airborne Corps.
Alternatives & No-Go’s
As Russian forces overcome resistance and their own deficiencies in Ukraine’s eastern and southern territories, they will inevitably move west, closing other routes for resupply.
Slovakia and Hungary share borders with Ukraine. Both have been hesitantly willing (if increasingly motivated) to support a NATO presence, possibly including resupply operations. Slovakia shares a 60-mile border with Ukraine, part mountainous, part lowland. Two main roads join a (freight) rail line as cross-border access points.
Hungary shares an 85-mile border with Ukraine along the Tisza river valley. The land is mostly rolling hills and the variably navigable Tisza river flows across to Ukraine. About five main roads and two rail lines connect the countries.
American F-15 (and possibly F-35) detachments are thought to have deployed to Slovakia’s Malacky Air Base and Hungary’s Kecskemet Air Base, suggesting the possibility that U.S./NATO airlift airplanes could operate from these bases as well.
Byran Clark, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, says Slovakia and Hungary are realistic, if more complicated supply route alternatives as long as conditions in Ukraine allow.
“They’re good back-ups. As Russia starts to make inroads in western Ukraine, [NATO] will have to be more clever in how they transfer material. For now, they don’t need to though. Russia has very little influence over western Ukraine’s airspace.”
But most everyone agrees that will change. Two weeks ago, a senior official told Defense News that the Pentagon was exploring different ways to supply Ukraine in the event that arms transfers by air become impossible.
In late February, retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges (commander of U.S. Army Europe from 2014 to 2017) said that may entail using contracted civilian trucks/drivers, driving from Slovakia, Hungary or Poland to drop supplies to Ukrainian forces to then transport further east over land to a shifting front.
Romania and Eastern Europe’s southern border with Ukraine from Slovakia down to the Black Sea.
WorldAtlas.com CIA Factbook
Further south, Moldova has a potentially useful 760-mile border of rolling terrain with Ukraine. A NATO member, Romania, lies to its west. But Moldova has long been Russian dominated (it was part of the USSR from 1940-1991) despite recent political changes.
“They’re not interested in providing basing, logistics support or access for support operations,” Clark says. “They also have the eastern Transnistria region [east of the Dniester River] where there are Russian/paramilitary forces which probably outnumber the Moldovan military.”
Moldova’s pro-European president, Maia Sandu, condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February and the country’s prime minister suggested that it should move to become a member of the European Union. More than 75% of its population speaks Romanian but its breakaway Transnistria region, right on Ukraine’s border, has been described as a place where the Soviet Union never collapsed.
That would leave Romania’s roughly 200-mile northern highland/mountain border with Ukraine and its 100-mile southern lowland border with Ukraine (Odessa) as the last possibilities heading south. Despite the obstacle of the Carpathian range in the north, there are a variety of roads and railways into Ukraine from north and south Romania.
The U.S. and NATO have an increasing Romanian presence and as long as Ukraine’s western airspace remains uncontested, there are airfields in eastern/southern Romania, including Mihail Kogălniceanu Air Base, to which western tactical airlifters (like C-130s) could fly. The U.S. could also leverage recent U.S. Army investments in the Camp Mihail Kogalniceanu land base and a nearby airport.
The Black Sea border with Ukraine is another no-go, practically speaking, Clark observes. “For one, the Black Sea is closed right now [by Turkey] except for ships that are home-ported there. Russia therefore has the bulk of the naval forces in the Black Sea. They can control the [Ukrainian] coastline – even if they don’t own all the land – and control it far enough inshore that it would be difficult to mount any resupply effort along that border.”
The Willing & Their Jets
The willingness of NATO and the U.S. to resupply Ukraine as Russia gains a firmer foothold is as much a question as the choices between Poland and alternative supply paths Clark says. It starts with the fundamental calculus made by the Biden administration and European capitals prior to the conflict.
The Biden administration prepared a $200 million package of additional military assistance for Ukraine last fall but held off on delivering the aid for weeks, approving it in late December 2021. The arms/supplies took a month or more to deliver. A subsequent $350 million package approved at the end of February was forwarded within the space of six days the New York Times trumpeted, much of it now delivered.
“I think this administration has been very risk averse,” Clark asserts. “This has basically been a continuing effort to mitigate the narrative that they’ve been soft in supporting Ukraine. They were banking on this being a very short operation and then being able to say, ‘We kept the U.S. out of what was going to be a failed attempt to protect Ukraine.’ Now, they’re having to continue to throw some effort into this to prevent being seen as letting Russia have its way. They’re just doing the bare minimum.”
A Polish AF MiG-29 exhibited in Warsaw, Poland during a NATO AWACS presentation. (Photo by Darek … [+] Majewski/Gallo Images Poland/Getty Images)
The MiG-29 spectacle of the last couple days suggests that Poland too may be less supportive than certainly Ukraine would like. Tuesday’s statement from the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the country is “ready to deploy – immediately and free of charge – all their MIG-29 jets to the Ramstein Air Base [Germany] and place them at the disposal of the Government of the United States of America,” underlines the point Clark adds.
“If Poland really wanted to help Ukraine, they would just fly the planes across the border to any of several airfields not far from the Polish border. They could just say, ‘The keys are in the ignition, pick them up whenever you want.’ Russia would complain but they don’t have the ability to impact that kind of transfer. They [Poland] chose to say this is a NATO-Polish decision, pulling the whole Alliance into it.”
And the Alliance says it isn’t willing to provoke Putin. Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke to Poland Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak on Wednesday, telling the latter that Pentagon does not support its offer to transfer the MiGs by way of U.S. custody.
Kirby added that the Pentagon believes the “best way to support Ukrainian defense is by providing them the weapons and the systems that they need most to defeat Russian aggression, in particular anti-armor and air defense.”
Clark opines that the demurral rests on a nebulous distinction.
“In my mind, [Poland’s MiG transfer] is an acceptable risk. We’re shipping other lethal weapons to Ukraine including anti-tank missiles. They’re happy enough to send Stinger missiles but they’re not likely willing to send airplanes.”
Poland’s offer, which proposes receiving used F-16s (the Polish Air Force already flies them) in return for the MiGs could cynically be looked at as a quick and comparatively inexpensive way to bolster its own defenses.
Clark agrees, pointing out that used F-16s are excess defense articles, not subject to stringent Foreign Military Sales requirements. Their transfer would likely only need DoD approval, not congressional approval, speeding the arrival of more combat effective, logistically friendly F-16s in Poland.
“Given the fact that they say they’re turning the MiG-29s over to the U.S., they may be just trying to get a quick improvement in their air force by getting used F-16s expeditiously.”
The fighter-transfer dance notwithstanding, Clark reiterates that Poland is “the main resupply route for the U.S. right now.” It will continue to be until Russian forces consolidate command of western Ukraine. How quickly that happens is a guessing game being played all over Europe, at NATO headquarters and in Washington where Clark says the odds mix other considerations with the speed of the Russian advance.
“I think the Pentagon is being a little too pessimistic on the closing of supply routes in part to relieve themselves of the responsibility to do more. But it’s inevitable that Ukraine will get closed off.”