I wrote this from my room in Kyiv at the end of an inspiring yet sobering visit. My wife, daughter and I came to Ukraine to assess greatest needs and determine how best we could help. I am impressed by the extraordinary resilience of the people of this country, their belief in democracy and their willingness to sacrifice everything to retain the freedom that history has so long denied them. They are convinced they will succeed in their war. They are likely wrong.
Ukraine’s hopes rest on America, not the America that leads NATO, but the America that considers the defense of democracy, freedom and human rights as a global mandate, the America that sees these values as its raison d’être — the America of American exceptionalism. Ukrainians are confident that, in the end, this America will not let them down in their own pursuit of the values America cherishes. Again, they are likely to be wrong.
Since the end of the Soviet Union and Ukraine’s beginning as a modern state, the United States wrote off Ukraine. Successive presidents resisted arming Ukraine or admitting Ukraine to NATO. The view was that doing so would provoke Russia and there was little hope, in any case, that the allies would go along.
Only mild retaliation met the Russian invasions of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin was likely emboldened by these tepid responses and any remaining concerns were erased when President Joe Biden gave public assurances that the U.S. would not directly intervene. A case can be made for not putting U.S. troops into Ukraine. No case can be made for communicating weakness and abandoning negotiating chips by taking this option off the table publicly.
But the U.S. did rise to the occasion, at least partially. U.S. leadership reinvigorated NATO and brought about a NATO effort at deterrence — the threat of greater arms deliveries to Ukraine and tough economic sanctions on Russia. Few thought these would deter Putin and they did not. So, too, no one thought Ukraine would long resist a Russian invasion, but it has, so far.
Ukraine’s impressive resistance and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s masterful advocacy brought about a change in U.S. policy — an acceleration of arms deliveries in type and quantity designed to keep Ukraine from losing but not sufficient to allow them to win. MiG-23 deliveries were rejected because they would “escalate the conflict.” And, more recently, though longer-range missiles have been approved, they come with the restriction that they not be used against Russia proper. The insufficiency of the weapons provided is prolonging the war without giving Ukraine the ability to force a balanced, negotiated outcome.
Today Ukrainians remain optimistic. But the optimism is not justified.
The Russians are advancing. Will they stop once they have achieved a secure land bridge to Crimea? Or will they push on to capture Odessa and the entire Ukrainian Black Sea coast, strangling Ukraine economically? Or will they renew their efforts to capture Kyiv and the totality of Ukraine? The decision is entirely in Putin’s hands. In the end, given Putin’s willingness to throw unlimited human and financial resources at the conflict and to use terror and disregard for human rights, Ukraine has little chance to succeed. No one ever won a war playing only defense. U.S. policy to deny Ukraine the ability to mount an offense guarantees defeat.
This gloomy forecast is not inevitable. It is only inevitable if the U.S. continues to hide behind its formal obligations to defend only the territorial integrity of NATO and do no more. Defeat of Russia can only happen if the U.S. abandons the role it once assumed as leader of the free world even beyond its formal treaty obligations. Defeat can only happen if the U.S. abandons exceptionalism.
The U.S. needs to provide Ukraine with the ability to defend itself both with defensive and offensive capabilities. Ukraine needs arms capable of destroying the Russian fleet in Crimea, of attacking weapons systems and vital logistics and war support depots along the Russian side of the Russia-Ukraine border, and it needs the aircraft necessary to gain air superiority. Ukraine does not need to attack population centers in Russia — this would be to squander the advantages it currently enjoys by occupying the moral high ground. But it needs to have enough capability to take the war to Russia. Then and only then will there be a road to a solution that may still fall short of victory but which will not be defeat.
And, finally, the U.S. needs to get out of the mode of projecting weakness in the name of prudence. A good start would be to get President Biden and his minions to stop anguishing publicly about fears of escalation.
Ukraine needs a White House projecting determination to defeat Putin, not one concerned about hurting his feelings. Escalation in Ukraine will not put us on a slippery slope to World War III. Losing in Ukraine most certainly will.