The United States has no idea what is happening to the weapons it sends to Ukraine

The United States has few ways to track the important supplies of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles and other weapons it sends across the border to Ukraine, a source told CNN – an eclipse largely due to a lack of US troops on the ground of easily portable small systems currently flooding cross-border traffic.

This is a conscious risk that the Biden administration agrees to take.

In the short term, the United States sees the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars in weapons as vital to Ukraine’s ability to withstand Moscow’s invasion. A senior officer said on Thursday that this was “certainly the biggest delivery for a partner country in conflict”. But the risk, according to US officials and defense experts, is that in the long run, some of these weapons could fall into the hands of the military and paramilitaries that the United States did not intend to arm.

“We have clarity for a short time, but when it enters the fog of war we are almost at zero,” said a source familiar with US intelligence. “Everything falls into a big black hole and soon after we have almost no idea.”

In deciding to send multimillion-dollar weapons to Ukraine, the Biden administration took into account the risk that some of the supplies would end up in unexpected places, a spokesman said. But right now, according to the same source, the administration sees the failure to adequately supply Ukraine as a much greater risk.

As the United States military is not present on the ground, the United States and NATO rely primarily on information provided by the Ukrainian government. Authorities have tacitly acknowledged that Ukraine tends to provide only information that supports their request for more aid, more weapons, and more diplomatic support.

“This is a war – everything they do and say in public is aimed at winning the war. “Every public statement is an information operation, every interview, every appearance of Zelenski on the air is an information operation,” said another source familiar with Western intelligence. “That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t do it.”

For months, US and Western authorities have provided detailed information on everything they know about the state of Russian forces in Ukraine: how many casualties there are, what combat power they have, how much equipment they have, what kind of ammunition they use, and where. But as for Ukrainian forces, authorities acknowledge that the West, along with the United States, has some information gaps.

Western estimates of the victims of Ukrainian forces are also vague, according to two sources familiar with Western and US intelligence. “It’s hard to follow without people in the field,” they say.

Questions of transparency

The Biden administration and NATO countries say they are supplying weapons to Ukrainian forces based on what Ukraine says it needs, whether it’s portable systems like Javelin and Stinger or Slovakia’s S-300 air defense systems, which were sent in the last week.

Javelin and Stinger missiles, as well as weapons and ammunition, are generally more difficult to track than large systems such as the S-300, which are sent by train. Although Javelin has serial numbers, there are very few ways to track their path and use in real-time, say sources familiar with the problem.

Last week, the United States agreed to supply Kyiv with certain models with higher military power, which some senior administration officials until a few weeks ago considered too much of an escalation of risk. This delivery includes Mi-17 helicopters, 18,155 mm Howitzer guns, and another 300 military drones. But much of this equipment has not yet been announced, and drones are disposable mobile devices that will be difficult to track later. “I can tell you where they are in Ukraine and whether Ukrainians are using them at the moment,” a senior defense official told reporters last week. “They don’t tell us about every cartridge they fire, neither who nor when. We may never know how drones are used.

The Department of Defense does not mark the weapons it sends to individual military units, according to a statement from Pentagon spokesman John Kirby. Trucks loaded with weapons pallets from the Department of Defense were received by the Ukrainian military, mainly in Poland, from where they were taken to Ukraine, Kirby said. “It further depends on the Ukrainians where they will go and how they will be distributed in their country.”

A Congressional source said that even if the United States is not on the ground in Ukraine, they have the tools to understand what is happening, beyond what Ukraine says, stressing that the United States has comprehensive satellite imagery and both warring armies. – Russian and Ukrainian – use standard communication equipment.

Another congressional source said the U.S. military considered the information received from Ukraine to be reliable because the United States had trained and equipped the Ukrainian military for the past eight years, developing strong relations during that time. But this does not mean that there is no eclipse, the source added, such as the operational status of the Ukrainian S-300.

Jordan Cohen, a CATO defense and foreign policy analyst who focuses on the arms trade, says the biggest danger posed by huge arms supplies to Ukraine is what will happen to it after the end of the war. war or after moving to some prolonged stalemate.

Such a risk always accompanies any decision to send weapons to another country. For decades, the United States has sent weapons to Afghanistan, first to arm the mujahideen to fight the Soviet army, than to arm the Afghan forces to fight the Taliban.

Inevitably, some of the equipment reaches the black market, including Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, such as those currently supplied to Ukraine by the United States.

It is well known that the United States tried to find the Stingers after the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan. But they failed to find them all, and when the United States itself invaded Afghanistan in 2001, some officials worried they might be used by the Taliban against them.

Other weapons have also become weapons for opponents of the United States. Much of what the United States has left to help Afghan forces have become part of the Taliban’s arsenal since the fall of the Afghan government and military.

The problem is not isolated to Afghanistan. Weapons sold to Saudi Arabia and the UAE have found their way into the hands of fighters linked to al Qaeda and Iran. The risk of such a scenario in Ukraine is real, admit defense officials. In 2020, the Chief Inspector of the Department of Defense released a report raising concerns about the tracking of the end-use of weapons sent to Ukraine. But given the Ukrainian army’s enormous immediate need for more weapons and ammunition, the long-term risk of weapons entering the black market or falling into the wrong hands is considered acceptable, the source said. “This may not be a problem until 10 years from now, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about it now,” said analyst Cohen. “Over 50 million rounds of ammunition – all these ammunition will not be used to resist the Russians. In the end, they will be abused, intentionally or not. ”

The Russian threat

Authorities are not so concerned, at least for now, that the weapons will fall into Russian hands. Our intelligence source notes that Russia’s failure to hold large tracts of territory or force the surrender of many Ukrainian units means that these weapons have either been used or remain in Ukrainian hands.

At this stage, Russia seems to be failing to cut or destroy supplies. A third intelligence source said Russia did not appear to be actively attacking Western arms shipments entering Ukraine, although it was unclear why, especially given that the United States has information that the Russians have such a desire, which was discussed both publicly and privately. There are many theories that shipments are still allowed, the source added, including that Russian forces simply cannot find the – weapons and equipment are sent in unmarked trucks and are often transported at night. Perhaps the reason is that Russian forces are running out of ammunition and are reluctant to waste it by targeting random trucks unless they are sure they are part of a military convoy.

On Monday, however, Russia said it had destroyed a warehouse near Lviv that had large supplies of weapons provided to Ukraine by the United States and European countries. CNN was unable to confirm the statement.

But generally speaking, Russia does not have perfect reconnaissance visibility in Ukraine, the source added, and their air power in western Ukraine, where the shipments come from, is severely limited by Ukraine’s air defense systems.

The Pentagon has officially said it has not yet seen Russian attempts to cut off arms or military shipments to Ukraine. “The flights are still taking place at delivery points in the region. The land movement of these consignments is still going on inside Ukraine. “Every day there is military aid, weapons, and materials, as well as support equipment that falls into Ukrainian hands,” Kirby said on Thursday. “We will continue to do this for as long as we can and as quickly as we can. We have not seen any Russian efforts to stop this flow. So we will just keep doing it, “he added. “We constantly monitor deliveries, monitor them every day, change and adapt to needs.”

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