Are the MiG-29s Breaking the Taboo on Long-range Weapon Deliveries?

Delay in the supply of munitions both emboldening the aggressor and prolonging the conflict

28 March 2023

Bohdan Bernatskyi

Future of Ukraine Fellow

A year after Russia’s assault on Ukraine, Western reluctance to send longer-range weapons to Ukraine remains deeply rooted in fears of nuclear escalation by a desperate Moscow. But Ukraine will struggle for victory without the ability to strike well behind Russian lines.

Despite the growing conviction in Western capitals that a Ukrainian victory should be the desired endgame to the Russian invasion, they remain reluctant to “provoke” Vladimir Putin towards a major escalation with some types of weapon deliveries to the Ukrainian military.

What would constitute such a major escalation often remains unsaid, but there is little doubt that the potential use of nuclear arms is what is meant here. One may imagine that the Russians will either start shelling Ukrainian nuclear power plants or even deploy tactical nuclear weapons. But everyone saw what happened in the Energodar nuclear power plant where the Russian Army stored artillery rounds.

Can one understand “major escalation” as another threat to destroy civil energy infrastructure in Ukrainian cities with millions of inhabitants in winter? The Russians already tried that, but without much success.

So the remaining risk of provoking Putin with more decisive arms deliveries is potentially using nuclear weapons against Ukrainian forces. However, by now, it should be clear that this much-repeated Russian threat is all but empty. Not only because the impact of such an attack could be risky for Russia – nuclear contamination and the direction of the wind are unpredictable and could devastate their own forces. The primary reason is that it would cross the red line for the entire world – even the closest Russian ally, China, has declared that using nuclear arms would be unacceptable.

The Case for Long-range Weapons Is Strong

Thus, the fear of provoking Putin with deliveries of long-range weapons is no longer based on substance. It seems more of an excuse for holding on to them or, even worse, evidence of weakness. And it is contrary to the stated objective of NATO and Western allies – do what is necessary to help Ukraine win.

It is, therefore, worth rehashing the argument for long-range weapons. In recent months, the most brutal and bloody fighting has occurred in Bakhmut, Avdiivka and Vuhledar. To assault and occupy these cities in the east of Ukraine, the Russians deployed the majority of their forces. The absence of long-range weapons in the Ukrainian arsenal is one of the reasons why the Russian army was able to concentrate its reserves near the frontline and support its offensive on a day-to-day basis.

This stands in contrast to the successful liberation of Kherson and the right bank of the Dnipro river in November 2022, when the Ukrainian Armed Forces destroyed Russian logistics before launching their counterattack and thus prevented Russia from resupplying its military units located there.

This is not to say that long-range missiles or additional fighter planes would become some  “wunderwaffe” in the conflict. Even if tomorrow Ukraine obtains dozens of long-range missiles to penetrate Russian forces far behind the frontline, this does not guarantee a Russian collapse. However, it would give the Ukrainians greater opportunities for diverse military strategies and, more importantly, save the lives of many Ukrainian soldiers and civilians.

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More cities will carry on living and not turn into dead wastelands like Bakhmut. Pushing back Russian forces as far as new missiles and jets would allow will help Ukraine become more resilient and improve prospects of ending the conflict by expelling Russian forces from Ukrainian lands.

The long-range rockets would allow the Ukrainian Armed Forces to target the Crimea bridge, which would cause panic in the Crimean peninsula and force the Russians to consider another gesture of goodwill. The results of the explosions on the Crimea bridge illustrated a critical vulnerability of this infrastructure project. While the symbolic meaning of demolishing the Crimea bridge is hard to underestimate, the price of keeping the Russian military bases in Crimea (by sea or air) will also rise dramatically.

The Europeans and Americans do a lot to help Ukraine with the reconstruction of energy plants and transformers though it is only dealing with the result, ignoring the cause. The long-range weapon or rockets installed on fighter jets will open the possibility for Ukraine to destroy Russia’s rocket-launching systems and eliminate the cause of mass destruction of civil infrastructure. Ukraine has already proved its ability to generate problems in Russian military airports. The incidents reported at Engels airport, about 700 km from the Ukrainian border, resulted in what Russian reaction? They did not even express concern.

On the other hand, just look at the Iranian drones, better known as “Shahed 136”, which Russians are using to target Ukrainian infrastructure objects and transformers. These drones can carry a warhead up to 50 kilograms in weight, and their operational range can be between 970 and 2500 km.

In comparison, the longest-range weapon in the Ukrainian arsenal is still the Himars, with an effective range of up to 80km (note: Ukraine is constantly asking for ATACMS rockets with a range of up to 300km).

Breaking the Ice with MiGs-29?

The recently announced transfer of MiG-29s by the Slovaks (13 fighters) and Poles (4 fighters) opens a new chapter of military assistance to Ukraine. No transfer of aircraft has taken place before, so the decision is groundbreaking. Moreover, this move begs the question: If it is acceptable to transfer these jets to Ukraine and the Russians can do nothing about it, then why should we be worried about the reaction of Russians to F-16 fighter jets appearing in Ukrainian skies?

The President of Ukraine has asked his US counterpart about the enlargement of the military assistance package with modern aviation. Media observers report that at least two Ukrainian pilots started training on the F-16 US fighter jets, which may be an encouraging signal for the future. However, no public promises are yet in place.

Another bottleneck exists around ammunition, as the current war consumes thousands of rounds every single day. Very recently, the first signs have also started appearing that the Russian Army is facing a deficit in ammunition, but Russia’s firepower in artillery exceeds Ukraine’s by three or four times, at a minimum.

A good sign is the commencement of Western tank deliveries to Ukraine, ending the so-called Leopard-tank saga. On the other hand, the number of tanks delivered (or promised to be delivered) is not too optimistic as several European countries have only announced the donation of four or eight tanks, and unless there’s a considerable uptick in deliveries, 30 tanks a month won’t amount to any real difference on the front line, especially a frontline that stretches 1500 km.

This lack of military munitions strengthens the view that Europeans hardly understand the scale and gravity of the hostilities. Some European countries are smaller in size than the actual zone of active military operations. More worrying, the Russian leader has been convinced that he has a greater chance of winning a long war, and any delays in delivering weapons to Ukraine only feed his beliefs.

Proportionality and Raising the Deterrence Effect

Supplying Ukraine with long-range missiles, artillery and modern combat fighter jets will redress the military strength balance in favour of Kyiv’s forces, which is necessary to allow for Ukraine’s victory on the battlefield. Equally important is that deliveries of such weaponry will also serve as a deterrent rather than encouragement for the Russian leadership. The more modern and precise weapons Ukraine obtains, the less willing Russia is likely to continue pouring its shrinking personnel and equipment into the conflict. Long-range rockets and fighter jets will make the price of any further Russian assault much higher, increasing the deterrence effect.

The combined impact on Ukraine’s strength and Russia’s willingness to fight is more likely to bring about the end game that the West desires – peace, greater security and Ukraine’s integration into the EU and NATO.

Victorious and well-equipped Ukrainian Armed Forces will likely be a key element of European security in the future. More capabilities for Ukrainian forces mean more guarantees for peace, with or without Russia.

Conversely, maintaining the weapons taboo would likely prolong the fighting and reduce the chances of Ukrainian victory with all its implications. Ukraine will have to continue to compensate for shortages of arms with the bravery and sacrifice of its soldiers and civilians. And last but not least, exhausting the Ukrainian armed forces will make them less valuable as NATO’s future eastern vanguard.


Published as part of our Future of Ukraine Fellowship programme. Learn more about it here and consider contributing.

This article was translated into Polish and published on Onet and Res Publica Nowa.

Featured image by Galan Dall

Bohdan Bernatskyi

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Bohdan Bernatskyi is a Visegrad Insight Fellow as of 2022. As a Senior Lecturer at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (and Ostroh Academy) he teaches Diplomatic Law, Public International Law, Countermeasures and Law of Treaties. In 2019, he defended PhD thesis on banning political parties in Ukraine and abroad. Since then, Bohdan has become a member of the Parliamentary working group on reforming party legislation in Ukraine. Bohdan serves as an independent Legal Consultant at Project Expedite Justice (2022-currently), Future of Ukraine Fellow at Visegrad Insight (2022-currently). He was a Legal Adviser to Ukrainian MPs (2020-2022), and Democracy Reporting International (2015-2019). His professional track of record includes thorough expertise in the fields of sanctions and transitional justice initiatives. He is the author of the complex changes to Ukrainian sanctions infrastructure which aimed at converging UA foreign policy tools to EU best practices. Given EU candidate status to Ukraine, the idea to deepen cooperation within EU-UA CFSP, including sanctions, will gain more currency. Bohdan participated as an Independent Expert in the transitional reform group launched by the Ministry of Reintegration of Ukraine. All efforts related to building solutions for sustainable peaceful reintegration of the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine was brutally interrupted by Russia on February 24th, 2022. The aftermath of the war will require harder approaches to transitional measures and Bohdan will contribute to this development.

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