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Washington Wednesday: Arming Ukraine


WORLD Radio - Washington Wednesday: Arming Ukraine

Defense officials are wrestling with how to arm and equip Ukraine while remaining ready to deter other threats to the United States and its allies

An aircraft that was destroyed during fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces is seen at the Kherson international airport in Kherson, Ukraine, Friday, Dec. 2, 2022 Associated Press Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka

NICK EICHER, HOST: First up on The World and Everything in It: U.S. policy in Ukraine.

Well, it’s Washington Wednesday, and at the Pentagon, Defense officials are still wrestling with a massive ongoing challenge: That is how to continue arming and equipping Ukraine in its fight against Russia while remaining ready to deter other threats to the United States and our allies.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Joining us now to talk about how the Pentagon is addressing those challenges is retired U.S. Army Lt. General Thomas Spoehr. He’s an expert on national defense strategy and equipment modernization. General, good morning!

THOMAS SPOEHR, GUEST: Good morning. Thanks for having me today.

BROWN: General, let’s start in Ukraine. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said this week that Vladimir Putin is trying “to bring the Ukrainian people to their knees” with relentless strikes on civilian targets.

Is Putin now just trying to terrorize the country into giving up by destroying its infrastructure? What do you think Putin is trying to do now?

SPOEHR: Myrna, you can’t really draw any other conclusion. He’s hitting the electrical grid for these cities and the rural areas as well. And electrical grids really don't have a military value because Army soldiers, they don't plug into the grid, they're usually self-contained. They have their own generators, their own power, their equipment comes with this power. So the only thing destroying the electrical grid can do is inconvenience and hurt civilians. You know, I was just looking at the temperature in Kyiv today and the feels-like temperature is 12 degrees. So you can imagine what it's like to be without your power and it's 12 degrees outside.

BROWN: Sen. Angus King, who serves on the Intel Committee essentially said this week that Putin is looking more and more like a cornered wild animal and he becomes increasingly dangerous as he runs out of options.

What are your thoughts on that? And how far do you think Putin could or will go?

SPOEHR: Yeah, that’s a question that a lot of people worry about. I would differ a little bit with Senator King in that Putin is losing soldiers. He's losing equipment every day in Ukraine. And so while he may become more dangerous, he may become more unstable, his military machine—the one that he uses to coerce and create terror—is becoming weaker. And so Russia as a whole, as a country, because of the economic sanctions, because of the loss of his military folks is really actually not becoming dangerous. The only thing dangerous probably is what's going on in Vladimir Putin's mind.

BROWN: Well, back to the Pentagon now. Give us an update on what kinds of weapons and assistance the United States is providing to Ukraine.

SPOEHR: That’s a great question. We’ve all heard about the Stingers and the Javelins and that has kind of transitioned. I mean, we're providing smaller amounts of those. And now, the focus is turning to munitions, specifically, HIMARS rockets and artillery shells. And the Pentagon, even though they had war reserves, supplies of those materials, is now scrambling to get with the defense industry in the United States and to increase the production on these kinds of things. So they are signing contracts, it seems like almost every day for millions, hundreds of millions of dollars for these new munitions in order to be able to support the fight in Ukraine. The dilemma is even if you sign a contract today in December, it will still be months, if not years before some of that equipment is delivered. So we're a little bit behind the eight ball in that regard.

BROWN: Is there anything the U.S. military is not currently providing that you think it should? Something else that could make a big difference?

SPOEHR: I do. It bothers me as a military person, that Ukraine, we haven't given them much capability to strike the territory of Russia itself while Russia is at complete liberty, it seems, to strike any part of Ukraine including the power grid's as we talked about. We are somewhat constrained in Ukraine to just striking the Russian forces that are inside of Ukraine. And, you know, history has shown in all the conflicts that the United States has been in that if you give your opposing force, your enemy sanctuary in some other country, the fight just goes on and on, because you can't bring it to a conclusive thing. Now, I know, the United States, the President and others are worried about escalating this conflict. But, you know, Russia, they're the instigators of this. If they're going to strike Ukrainian power grids, I don't understand why we wouldn't allow the Ukrainians to strike the Russian power grid in response. That's how you deter people from doing things. And so I would like to see us giving the Ukrainian military more longer-range munitions than we have given them thus far, munitions, and probably fighter aircraft, because their air force is severely diminished from how it started the war.

BROWN: In the process of arming Ukraine, how does the Pentagon avoid depleting its own weapons stockpiles and remain ready to deter other potential threats?

SPOEHR: Well, that again is an excellent question and that's something the Pentagon is grappling with every day making these tough decisions about how much to give and how much to hold back. We as the general public can't really see this because we can't see what the stockpiles are of war reserves, we can't see what the requirements are for the other war plans like for a fight against China like that. So we are only dealing with very small scraps of information here. Some of this you can see where the United States has asked some of its allies, like South Korea, to sell artillery shells to Ukraine, and that suggests that, hey, maybe the United States is at the point where it rather would rather not give any more of its own artillery shells because we're nearing the point where that would cause us undue risk.

BROWN: What kinds of weapons does Taiwan need to make China think twice about invading and can we supply those weapons?

SPOEHR: We can supply some of them and so some of them are very similar to what we provided Ukraine at the start—Javelins and Stingers are helpful for Taiwan to help their defense. It is a different situation, though. And so, you know, Taiwan is obviously an island. Ukraine is landlocked. Some things that we could provide to Taiwan that we didn't provide Ukraine are mines for the sea. And so floating mines would help keep the Chinese navy at a greater distance from Taiwan. Anti-ship missiles, again, for Taiwan to use against the Chinese navy, that would also be helpful, and they have a more limited role in Ukraine. And so I think those would be helpful and we haven't really provided much of that to Ukraine.

BROWN: For this last question, I want to ask you also about Europe’s role in Ukraine and in NATO’s defense. By some reports, Germany may be backtracking on its promise to increase its defense spending.

And Finland’s prime minister said this week that Europe isn’t truly prepared to defend itself … and that without the United States, Europe would be in trouble. Your thoughts on that assessment?

SPOEHR: I think there’s a great deal of truth in what you just said. Germany pledged to provide 100 million euros. I don't think we have seen that yet. They have similarly pledged to increase their defense spending to at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product. We haven't seen that yet, either. And those pledges were made in, I want to say, the February timeframe. So it'd be about time where we start to see some of those promises come to fruition. And so if they do not, I think that should be cause for concern.

It has been true for a while that NATO, you know, America is really the linchpin of NATO. There are some countries within NATO that are very strong militarily, but it is usually always taken American leadership and capabilities that NATO kind of forms around. You know, I will say a couple of things. So there's some countries in Europe in terms of supporting Ukraine, I don't think they're pulling their fair share and their fair weight. And then on the other side of that, there are some countries that are and so Poland comes to mind as a country that is going above and beyond, as is the United Kingdom, as is many of the Baltic states like Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia. They're providing great support. And so it's kind of a mixed bag, if you will, in Europe of those that are really doing a lot and some that could do more, I think.

BROWN: We’ve been talking to retired Lt. General Thomas Spoehr. He is the director of the Center for National Defense at the Heritage Foundation. General, thanks so much!

SPOEHR: Thank you, Myrna.

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