The extraordinary skill, courage and effectiveness of Ukraine’s fighting forces have given the US and NATO an extraordinary opportunity to reestablish military deterrence in Europe and show the Kremlin that unprovoked military aggression will be repelled and ultimately defeated. But President Biden and NATO leaders are dithering. They are simply not acting with the urgency needed to fully support Ukraine’s military.
It’s the same failure they displayed for the year prior to the invasion, when Putin was building up tens of thousands of troops along Ukraine’s border. Even now, the US and NATO are hesitating to provide the full complement of essential weapons to Ukraine, including air-defense systems, MIG fighters and a lot more drones, anti-tank and anti-ship weapons. Those are needed now.
Putin’s threats seem to have deterred Washington and Brussels from providing the weapons Ukraine needs to take back its country. It was certainly prudent for Western powers to resist some Ukrainian demands. A no-fly zone, which Volodymyr Zelensky repeatedly sought, is too dangerous because it could lead to lethal encounters between NATO and Russian pilots. That, in turn, would risk escalation between nuclear powers. But if NATO is not going to shoot down Russian planes itself, why not give the Ukrainians the weapons to defend their own skies?
Putin also seems to have deterred Western leaders from articulating clear war goals. No Western leader has actually said, “We want Ukraine to win this war.” Of course, we want the killing to stop. But we shouldn’t be pushing Zelensky for an armistice or peace deal that rewards Russia for launching this invasion, with its wanton killing of civilians, including those in clearly marked shelters.
That “push” is exactly what the Biden administration and European leaders have been doing. They seem to want a compromise deal that ends the fighting quickly. While that has enormous humanitarian appeal, it would also give Putin some of the territory he took by force, as well as time to regroup his forces, perhaps to attack again.
Putin himself has already rejected these compromises. The tentative discussions in Turkey led nowhere. Neither did efforts at mediation by other governments. By now, it should be clear that Russia will only negotiate a treaty Ukraine can accept if Putin fears he would lose more by continued fighting. Those losses would be territory the Russians currently hold or, more catastrophically, the collapse of Russia’s invading army and possibly instability in the regime itself. Putin will only agree to major concessions to avoid those catastrophic losses.
The prospect of catastrophic losses would also tempt Putin to escalate, such as using weapons of mass destruction to salvage his position. The only way to deter him is to make clear that Putin himself, as well as his regime, would face devastating military and economic consequences if he used such weapons.
In sum, the West’s goal should be to help Ukraine defeat the invading army while ensuring that NATO forces do not initiate contact with Russian forces. The US and its NATO partners should rapidly provide:
- A lot more weapons, especially the most lethal ones, including MIG fighters and a lot more anti-tank weapons to take out the Russian forces that have dug in around Kyiv
- Much faster delivery, done with a real sense of urgency, since Ukrainian forces still lack the arms they need
- A more robust statement of the West’s purpose in supporting Ukraine’s war effort. Political leaders might not candidly state that purpose in public, but they should be clear on it privately. And that purpose is, “In this war, we want Ukraine to win and Russia to lose”
What NATO should not do is anything that would initiate lethal contact with Russian forces, which could lead to escalation with unpredictable consequences.
It is stunning that, a full month after Russia launched this war, Ukraine is still in it. It is even more stunning that Ukraine has achieved a stalemate on the battlefield. With more NATO weapons, it could begin to push back Russian forces and perhaps even defeat them. That outcome is possible only because of the extraordinary courage and competence of the Ukrainian armed forces and the collective will of its besieged people.
They deserve the wherewithal to sustain their position and begin pushing back the Russians. Their success will do more than keep Ukraine free. It will help reestablish the deterrence essential for Western democracies to live in peace.