Residents of Kherson city celebrate their liberation from an eight-month Russian occupation, November 12, 2022 (Oleksandr Gimanov/AFP/Getty)

Originally published by The Conversation:

Range anxiety” is a phrase most often associated with electric vehicles having to regularly charge their batteries. But it is also central to an understanding of the protracted nature of the limited war being fought between Russia and Ukraine.

Range in this case means something different. It is the limited distance at which Ukraine can strike Russian military targets, a limitation effectively imposed on Kyiv by the weaponry supplied by Ukraine’s western allies.

The willingness of Kyiv’s allies to supply ever more sophisticated military aid has evolved over the year. Initially, western assistance to Ukraine was limited to MANPAD air defense systems and handheld anti-tank weapons. But this has gradually been extended to include sophisticated air defense systems, armored fighting vehicles and the promise of main battle tanks such as US Abrams, German Leopard 2s, and British Challengers.

The gradual increase in the scope and lethality of armaments supplied by the west to Ukraine has always been preceded by much agonizing over the desire to help while avoiding the escalation of the conflict – either with the involvement of NATO or with Moscow’s use of nuclear weapons.

So supplies of military aid have been incremental and hesitant – at least from Kyiv’s perspective. They have also come with the condition attached that western weapons cannot be used by Ukraine against Russian territory. There is an understandable fear, given Moscow’s repeated threats, that the Russians would view this as western entry into the war.

The Wobbling of the West

US sensitivity on this subject was evident when Secretary of State Antony Blinken responded to Ukrainian drone attacks on airbases hundreds of kilometers into Russian territory: “We have neither encouraged nor enabled the Ukrainians to strike inside of Russia.”

This concern explains the continued US reluctance to supply the longest-range rockets that are compatible with its High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, such as the much-requested ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile System).

Range anxiety also partly explains US reluctance to supply Ukraine with advanced fighter jets such as the F-16.

Due to the effectiveness of Ukraine’s ground-based air defense network – a combination of Soviet-era surface-to-air systems and western equipment, Russian aircraft have mostly been forced to launch attacks on Ukraine from inside their own airspace

. While this has largely limited Russian operations to eastern Ukraine, Moscow has augmented its arsenal with longer-range Iranian “kamikaze” drones to target Kyiv, damaging power infrastructure and killing civilians.

Sending F-16s to Ukraine under the same constraints as previous equipment would do little to address the Russian air threat. Air-to-air missiles operate over long distances and beyond visual sight. The Russian MiG-31 and Su-57 using the R37M long range hypersonic missile have engaged Ukrainian aircraft at a range of more 200 km (124 miles) from the safety of Russian airspace.

Supplying Ukraine with F-16s or other western aircraft without giving Kyiv the authority to engage enemy aircraft over Russia would only demonstrate the one-sided nature of the current limitations under which this conflict is being fought – constraints that manifestly benefit the Russian aggressors.

Evening An Uneven Playing Field

At present, Russia can commit acts of barbarism from its own territory while its aircraft and their operating bases are effectively immune from retaliation or interdiction. Under these constraints, Russian territory is a sanctuary while Ukraine suffers and burns. Given this, it is little wonder that Russia still believes it will prevail.

Most importantly, these constraints make it difficult to envisage how Ukraine could forcibly push Russian occupiers out of its territory if it is not allowed to use western-supplied equipment.

These limitations partly explain why the battle lines of this conflict resemble World War I trenches in a static and protracted conflict. Fighting at short range gives advantage to the side that can generate the most men and equipment for an offensive, something Russia has spent the winter months preparing.

Ukraine’s pleas for main battle tanks and armored fighting vehicles recognized the need for the capacity to maneuver and to fight the war on its terms. Its ability to fight the war at greater distance using greater quantities of longer-range artillery would also allow it to blunt the Russian offensive at depth, attacking supply bases and command centres.

It would also allow Ukraine to cut the land bridge between Crimea and the Rostov region of Russia without the need to regain all its territory up to the sea. Cutting off Crimea in this way would be a powerful counter-punch to the Russian efforts to invade the rest of the Donbas in eastern Ukraine. And isolating Crimea would starve the occupying Russian forces of resupply as a prelude for an assault.

Washington’s decision to supply Ukraine with ground-launched, small diameter bombs as part of a new US$2.17 billion (£1.8 billion) aid package this month indicates an appreciation of the case for longer-range military systems. These munitions have a range of 95 miles, twice that of the systems currently provided.

But these are unlikely to be available in time for the potentially decisive battles of spring 2023. For the Russian offensive to be blunted – and for Putin to be convinced that he cannot achieve his strategic objectives – either longer-range munitions need to be supplied to Ukraine in sufficient numbers, or the constraints under which the west is requiring Ukraine to fight this war need to be reconsidered.The Conversation