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Giving Ukraine a fighting chance: More support needed for the Territorial Defense Force

A commander of the Ukraine Territorial Defense Force recently wrote: “It has cost us too many Ukrainian lives, but each of us has made the choice to defend our freedom.”

These words from the front lines of the war in Ukraine dramatize the undaunted courage of civilian volunteers and the price they are paying. Too often, however, members of the Territorial Defense Force are the unsung and under-supported heroes of Ukraine’s extraordinary response to Russia’s invasion. As The Hill has reported, donations fill a key gap for these volunteers. So unless we provide more support for them, these volunteers of Ukraine will not have a fighting chance against Russia’s troops, artillery, and air power. 

Early in the war, the stunning ability of the Ukrainian military — including irregular civilian fighters — to destroy and disrupt the Russian Army’s plan for a lightning attack to capture Kyiv inspired the world. Putin was compelled to abandon his initial strategy to capture Kyiv and was forced to shift to waging a war of attrition in the east of Ukraine. 

To supplement Ukraine’s defense against Russia’s invasion, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky created the Territorial Defense Force (TDF) to give Ukraine additional fighting power. The TDF is composed of over 100,000 civilian men and women from all walks of life defending their cities and neighborhoods. But as Michael Kofman, an expert on Russia and Ukraine military affairs said recently, “They are replacing the soldiers they’ve lost with people who have very little training, who are mobilized personnel, and they’re replacing regular line units with Territorial Defense Forces.”

Often the men and women of the TDF are fighting without the weapons, training and equipment of the regular army. This particularly applies to non-lethal, vitally needed items such as helmets, boots, backpacks, flak vests, night-vision goggles, encrypted cell phones, radios, walkie-talkies, drones, GPS, computers and satellite services. Even basics like meals, blankets, uniforms, and medical supplies are needed. 

We agree Ukraine needs more lethal weaponry to offset Russia’s advantage. But because NATO, the Ministry of Defense and General Staff of Ukraine are understandably and appropriately focusing on the tasks of acquiring, deploying and sustaining heavy weaponry for the main army, the urgent needs of the TDF are the last to be filled. Getting more supplies to the TDF can increase the ability of these volunteers to defend their homes and to fight on the front lines, especially as the colder weather of winter approaches.

Innovation in warfighting can also give a critical edge to the Ukrainian resistance. For instance, young Ukrainians have mashed together civilian drones, communications gear, and satellite information to shift the tactical balance in favor of Ukraine. Novel attacks on Russian forces, logistics, and command centers are confounding Russian forces in effective and surprisingly inexpensive ways, adding disruption and fear to the already low morale of the Russian army. More such innovations in the hands of a well-supplied TDF will provide an even greater advantage.

In addition to more offensive weaponry and systems, we see three changes that will strengthen Ukraine’s chance of winning a prolonged war with Russia.

First, the Departments of Defense and State should dedicate a portion of Ukrainian aid to funding NGOs and other civilian volunteer organizations in Ukraine that have the capacity and networks of trusted relationships to deliver supplies directly to the TDF on the front lines in days rather than weeks.

Second, young American entrepreneurs, hackers, and computer engineers should be encouraged and funded to join with Ukraine’s bright technicians to modify existing technologies to give the TDF the agile, disruptive fighting capability they need.  DARPA, the Defense Innovation Unit, and the National Security Innovation Network have access to the technologies and talent to conceive and deliver innovative solutions quickly.

Third, President Biden should call on American citizens to donate to NGOs such as Fighting Chance Ukraine, Unite with Ukraine, Spirit of America, and Blue/Yellow USA who are ready and eager to deliver supplies to Ukraine’s volunteers and citizens, especially the TDF.

The combination of government and citizen support for a better-equipped TDF is critical if the volunteer heroes of Ukraine are to fight effectively now and in the months to come. A recent email from a TDF commander brings this home: “As a TDF battalion brought together at the beginning of the war, we are deeply appreciative of the support we have received from private American citizens and American NGOs. We have received … body armor and helmets, night vision, drones, sleeping bags, a pickup truck. With such support, we have been able to defend the city of Kharkiv. We still anticipate and are prepared for a long fight.”

Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, USAF (ret.), was the 17th Supreme Allied Commander Europe and is currently a distinguished professor at the Sam Nunn School at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

John E. Herbst is a former ambassador to Ukraine and Uzbekistan and currently serves as senior director of the Eurasia Center at The Atlantic Council.

Jerry MacArthur Hultin is a former Under Secretary of the Navy and served as president of the Polytechnic Institute of New York University. He is currently chairman of the Global Futures Group.

Tags Russian invasion of Ukraine Ukrainian resistance US aid to Ukraine Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky volunteers

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