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U.S. President Joe Biden’s historic visit to Kyiv days before the one-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine sent an important message to Ukrainians and, indeed, to Russians. “Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia,” Biden proclaimed, adding that the United States will support Ukraine “as long as it takes.” Indeed, “as long as it takes” has become the new talking point for Ukraine’s allies, repeated by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. But “as long as it takes” also signals to many Ukrainians that the allies expect the war to drag out for years, with Ukraine bearing the brunt of it. And they are right: even as the United States and its allies have sent billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment to Ukraine, there remains one thing they seem unable to supply: a clear, united commitment to a rapid Ukrainian victory. Unless the United States wants to find itself embroiled in another forever war, on terms that very much suit Russian President Vladimir Putin, it’s time for that to change.
A clear pattern has emerged in the past year: the Ukrainians request a weapons system and Western governments refuse to provide it, only to change their minds a few months later after public debates and disagreement among allies. The news in January that German Leopard tanks and U.S. Abrams tanks would be delivered to Ukraine later this year was, of course, welcome. But it came after months of debates between allies, culminating in an ultimatum from Germany that it would allow its tanks to be sent to Ukraine only if the United States pledged to send its own at the same time. The same is true of Patriot missile defense batteries, which Washington saw as a redline for Putin at the beginning of the war, only to send them months later after thousands more lives had been needlessly lost. The multiple launch rocket system known as HIMARS, which has proved so effective in helping Ukraine regain territory, was delivered only after extensive pressure and lobbying by Ukraine.
The same debate is now playing out over fighter jets and long-range missile systems. The Ukrainians are asking for F-16s and ATACMS, the long-range surface-to-surface missile systems that they need to reach into Russian-occupied parts of the country such as Crimea. When asked on January 30 whether Washington would deliver F-16s to Kyiv, Biden said no, which his advisers later revised to “not now.” On the same day, at The Hague, Macron, asked whether France was considering sending fighter jets to Ukraine, said that nothing was excluded in principle. Speaking about providing Ukraine with military assistance on February 8, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said, “Nothing is off the table.”
By the same token, nothing is exactly on the table, either. This ambiguity has resulted in a Western policy of incrementalism, setting the United States and Ukraine’s other allies up for a protracted conflict. This approach is encouraging Putin to believe that time is on his side and that the United States will eventually tire, as it did in Afghanistan, especially as political winds shift with a U.S. presidential election on the horizon. The policy, while ostensibly seeking to avoid escalation, is laying the ground for something far more dangerous for the United States and its allies: a potential Russian win.
THE STAKES COULD NOT BE HIGHER
It is clear that Russia cannot win its war in Ukraine on the maximalist terms initially set out by Putin. Putin can never occupy or hold the entirety of Ukraine. He cannot impose a Russian-backed government on the Ukrainian people. And having set out to forestall Ukraine’s integration with the West, he has made it an inevitability. But it is equally clear that Putin can and will spin anything short of a complete military collapse into a victory for the domestic constituencies that keep him in power. In fact, Putin has given himself an increasing amount of rhetorical wriggle room over his war aims, and he speaks of demilitarizing and de-Nazifying Ukraine with waning enthusiasm. It must become clear to the West, however, that anything short of the full restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity will represent a catastrophic defeat for the United States and its European allies.
If Russia were allowed to keep any of its ill-gotten gains in Ukraine—whether via peace treaty, cease-fire, or stalemate—the deterrent power of the United States and the transatlantic alliance would be lost. No longer would any would-be aggressor need to consider the Western response before invading or even just threatening a neighbor. The United States’ nuclear deterrent would remain, but that extends only to those countries with whom the United States has a formal alliance. Even there, revisionist powers such as China, Iran, and Russia would soon begin to look for holes in NATO’s nuclear umbrella.
Ukrainians may themselves decide that they want to stop fighting, and that is their sovereign and democratic right. If that happens, Western governments should stand ready to support Kyiv in negotiating an agreement that would guarantee the country’s security and set it on a path toward NATO and EU membership and the ability to defend its own sovereignty and prosperity. But Western leaders and publics should be under no illusion about what would happen if that choice were forced on Ukraine simply because Western publics grew tired of a war they weren’t even fighting. It would be more than just an abdication of moral responsibility to support a people facing genocide and repression. In very short order, it would mean more war, not less.
If Russia’s invasion ends on anything other than Ukraine’s terms, Moscow will have been proved correct: might would be seen to make right. Regional powers will look at their neighborhoods with increasing appetites, confident that the consequences of aggression would be minimal. The message received by smaller states would be equally clear: the only way to avoid Ukraine’s fate is either to yield preemptively to the regional hegemon or, if they are lucky enough to have the right neighbors, to seek a formal alliance. The race to dominate or be dominated will be deadly. NATO, the EU, and the United Nations all emerged in response to the endless wars to which this logic gives rise. The order these institutions engendered has been far from perfect, but if Russia is allowed to undermine that order by procuring a favorable outcome in Ukraine, what comes next—an era of permanent border wars, regional conflict, arms races, refugee crises, and disrupted trade—will be far, far worse than anything faced since World War II.
In practice, making a strategic commitment to victory on Ukrainian terms means flipping the logic of deterrence and escalation. The current slow-drip, reactive approach to providing Ukraine with additional weapons systems was designed in part to manage the potential that Putin might escalate the war. He could do so either through the use of weapons of mass destruction or by attacking NATO members themselves. Early on in the war, when Western leaders had very little data on which to gauge Russian intentions and strategies, this caution may have been justified. A year into the war, however, two truths are clear: first, the provision of increasingly powerful arms has not led to rampant Russian escalation; and second, relative Western restraint has not prevented Putin from bombing Ukrainian civilian targets.
Russia’s relentless war on Ukraine’s civilians is, in fact, the strategy that most analysts expected Moscow to pursue from the very beginning, replicating the tactics it used in Chechnya and Grozny in the 1990s, and more recently in Syria. The fact that it took Moscow months to begin its systematic bombardment of cities far from the front lines reflects the Kremlin’s initial, erroneous assumption that Ukrainian resistance would collapse more or less instantaneously. When that analysis itself collapsed, it took time for Russia to gear up for the brutality it has undertaken since September. To the extent that Russia escalated its attacks, then, it did so in response not to Western aid to Ukraine—and, indeed, Moscow hasn’t targeted the West or Western supply lines—but, rather, in response to Ukraine’s own resilience. As more and more Western aid has flowed into the country since September, the scope and scale of Russia’s assault has remained largely unchanged.
It is thus hard to argue that there is any causal relationship between Western arms supplies and Russia’s prosecution of the war—except in one respect. The West’s willingness to backstop the Ukrainian military has, in fact, reduced Russia’s war aims. Whatever the rhetoric, the size and shape of Russia’s unfolding spring offensive appears designed only to bolster its positions in the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine. Its current assault appears insufficient even to attempt to retake all of the territory Russia claims, illegally, to have annexed, to say nothing of threatening Kyiv and taking political control over the country as a whole. Militarily, then, Russia has responded to Western support for Ukraine not by upping its firepower but by reducing its de facto objectives.
The provision of increasingly powerful arms has not led to rampant Russian escalation.
Unfortunately, the incremental pace with which arms have been provided, and the very public deliberations over which arms to provide and when, has given the Russian military time to adjust and learn. Flipping that approach on its head would see the West make an immediate and open-ended commitment to giving Ukraine whatever it needs to win, even if not all of those arms can be delivered today. The transatlantic alliance should take a cue from the United Kingdom and begin training Ukrainian forces now to use the full range of weaponry the West can provide—but that should be just the beginning. In the immediate term, the West should make a credible commitment now to providing Ukraine with all feasible military support in the shortest time frame possible.
Some things, to be clear, would remain permanently off the table—including nuclear arms, other weapons of mass destruction, and arms banned by international law, which have no legitimate place in this or any other conflict. For everything else, though, allies should lay in the logistics for supply and maintenance now, and deliveries should be preapproved, ready to go on a hair trigger. The message to Putin and his generals would finally be clear: there is no compromise solution available, no line of defense except the Russian border itself, and no limit to Western resolve.
Faced with the certainty of defeat, Putin’s calculus would shift. For the past 12 months, Western ambiguity has emboldened Putin to prolong this war, allowing him to believe that there may perhaps come a time when the flow of support will stop, and thus that he can outlast the West and Ukraine. Replacing that ambiguity with strategic clarity—robbing Putin of any viable option other than an organized retreat—can help bring this war to an end. To borrow a phrase from Biden’s State of the Union address in February, it’s time for the West to finish the job.
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