Cars drive past by a board depicting President Biden that reads: “The World of Brave People! #thank you for support”, in the town of Bucha, outside Kyiv, Ukraine on Jan. 30.
In his momentous trip to Europe that included a surprise visit to Ukraine and a heralded speech in Poland, President Joe Biden proclaimed “unwavering” support for Ukraine and avowed Russia would “never” win the war. But the truth is that “wavering” has characterized the Biden administration’s approach to Ukraine to date. Moral and strategic prevarication have delimited the U.S. response to Russian genocide and conquest in the heart of Europe. Military aid to Ukraine has been incremental and plodding, while statecraft and oratory to address the terrible atrocities and the threat to freedom itself have been scarce and inadequate.U.S. policies have been oriented toward preventing Ukraine from losing rather than securing Ukrainian victory.
History can be rewritten in the short as well as the long term, and in either case, misleading narratives prevent us from learning valuable lessons and rationally assessing where to go “from here.” Congratulating ourselves on how much the West has done to help Ukraine, how Biden has rallied a strong and united response, and how Russia is suffering severe casualties and setbacks obscures the broader, truer picture, which isn’t so rosy. Why, for example, didn’t the United States and Europe do more to deter Russia’s all-out assault in the first place, and why didn’t they supply Ukraine with advanced weaponry early on? A rationale heard in high circles is that Americans and Europeans “underestimated” Ukraine and thought Russian victory would come swiftly.
UKRAINE, RUSSIA, AND THE FOG OF WAR
The moral and strategic clarity of Churchill, Truman, and Reagan this is not.
In spite of the hesitancy, and perhaps partly because hesitancy to give Ukraine the firepower it needed to win contributed to the impression that the war would drag on and drag us down, some are even arguing that Biden has done too much to help Ukraine — that America should focus on domestic problems and/or the China threat instead. But history shows that in this interconnected world, we don’t have the luxury of such binary choices. If the U.S. fails to influence and help others, hostile powers take the lead in influencing and harming us. World War II taught that when we bury our heads in the sand in the face of escalating hostilities and atrocities, great and tragic human cost comes back to haunt us.
It is true that we are spending vast sums on Ukraine, but we wouldn’t have to spend nearly as much now had we invested proportionately to the threat early on. Similarly, if the free world doesn’t stop Russia now, its “expenses,” moral, material, geopolitical, and military, will only grow. One must close hearts and minds to the recent and more distant past, to the Hitler-esque, Stalin-esque crimes against humanity and drive for domination Russia is revisiting upon Europe to believe we should ignore the pleas of valiant, freedom-loving Ukrainians for swifter delivery of more lethal military aid.
China is watching Ukraine to gauge Western strength and resolve and what it can expect to get away with in Taiwan. At a recent Center for Strategic and International Studies conference, Eliot Cohen asserted that those calling for a “pivot to Asia” forget that, in the 1940s, “the security order in Asia broke down because the European security order broke down.” Michael Vickers argued: “Our best near-term strategy for China is to defeat the Russians in Ukraine.” Indeed, that which gives Russia an advantage in Ukraine benefits China. There is no getting around the fact that Russia, along with partners China and Iran and supported by bad actors from Cuba and Venezuela to Syria and North Korea, is hellbent on debilitating the U.S. and bringing the West down. The more we contribute to Ukraine’s decisive victory, the more we stymie Russia’s machinations with U.S. adversaries and diminish the collective strength of what can now reasonably be called the Russia-China-Iran axis.
So too, the more we push back on Russia’s allies and enablers, the more difficult Russia’s path in Ukraine. The Biden administration’s often self-contradictory positions on China, appeasement of Iran, enabling of Cuba and Venezuela, and overall indifference to Syria play into Russia’s hands. Russia honed the terroristic methods it deploys and amplifies in Ukraine in the Syrian war. Russia’s bombing of apartments, schools, hospitals, and infrastructure, systemic torture, rape and disappearances, and heart-wrenching kidnapping of Ukrainian children make stopping Russia a moral and strategic imperative. So does Russia’s pattern of military aggression and human rights violations in tandem with the world’s worst dictators, including Syria’s Bashar Assad. Given Russia’s subversive and malign activities across the Balkans and the Baltics, and beyond, into the Middle East, Africa, and our own hemisphere, it should be clear that if Putin were to prevail in Ukraine, he wouldn’t stop there.
Let’s look truthfully, then, at the mounting Russian threat to Ukraine before its full-scale invasion, at its war of conquest and horrors, and at the U.S. response.
Although it received little attention at the time, Russia amassed an estimated 110,000 troops near Ukraine as early as May 2021. After Putin agreed to a summit with Biden and said he would draw down the troops, the National Security Council “temporarily halted” a $100 million military aid package for Ukraine. Even though Putin instead kept the troops at the border, Biden continued to “pause” the aid. Concurrently, the Biden administration waived sanctions imposed by the Trump administration on the Russia-aggrandizing, Europe-destabilizing Nord Stream 2 pipeline. In response to the growing mobilization of Russian troops near the border in late 2021 and early 2022, the administration did prepare a $200 million package of military aid for Ukraine, but that aid, too, was temporarily “held back” for the sake of the diplomatic process. Biden threatened to impose sanctions on Nord Stream 2 only if Russia “invaded Ukraine.” He thereby ignored the plea of nine eastern flank NATO allies and 22 members of Congress who signed a letter urging him to reinstate the sanctions immediately.
Ensuing meetings between American and Russian diplomats revealed the Biden team’s unwillingness to use America’s moral gravitas and military advantage to rally a tough allied response to the Russian threat. Russia’s evermore extreme provocations and demands were met not with proportionate deterrence and resolve but with continuous U.S. and Western European attempts to find a “diplomatic offramp.” Conspicuously absent were soaring words of support for democracy, expanded military exercises in Eastern Europe, timely delivery of defensive weapons to Ukraine, and tough sanctions on Russia. In December 2021, Biden even proposed a meeting with major NATO allies and Russia to discuss Russian “concerns” about NATO “expansion.” In doing so, he lent credence to Russia’s false claims that NATO might attack Russia and marginalized other countries’ legitimate concerns that Russia might attack them.
No wonder, in January 2022, Putin insisted upon more meetings with the U.S. — without NATO and Ukraine. Meanwhile, he sent paramilitary forces to take charge of the Kazakhstan government’s violent crackdown and bring Kazakhstan further into Russia’s orbit, staged a major cyberattack in Ukraine while weaponizing energy in Europe, revved up propaganda demonizing the Ukrainian people, sent military trains to the Ukrainian border, and sent troops to Belarus for joint military drills. In spite of all this, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and agreed to send written answers “to all of Russia’s security demands.” Squandering preemption, he told Lavrov there would be a “united, swift, and severe” response if Russia “invaded” Ukraine. The U.S. did release key intelligence to Ukraine on Russian war plans. But it was Russia, not the U.S., that was seizing the day.
On Feb. 24, 2022, Russia charged into Ukraine in convoys, immediately bombing cities and targeting civilians. Western reluctance and refusal even after Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, and even after Russia’s massive mobilization for war in 2021, to give Ukraine sophisticated weapons and help Ukraine modernize its defenses had left Ukraine vulnerable.
Remotely addressing this February’s Munich Security Conference, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he regretted that Western support came only “after the Russian tanks started moving in” and that Putin counts on support arriving “too slowly.” Indeed, with Russia’s ferocious air and land campaign underway, the West still failed to arm Ukraine swiftly and adequately. The Biden administration did approve the delivery of some of the Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and Javelin anti-tank missiles Ukraine had requested. But it rejected Poland’s plan to send Ukraine MiG fighter jets while ruling out sending F-16s and didn’t “announce” it would ship howitzers to Ukraine until late April. The U.S. decided in late May to provide Ukraine with multiple launch rocket systems with a 70-kilometer, but not 300-kilometer, range. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove told Task and Purpose, “We are giving them a limited number. We need to give them more and … to consider giving them the longer-range munitions.” Of the weaponry Ukraine had been allocated by early summer, Zelensky lamented in an interview that much had “not yet arrived” and that some have “promised aid but have not sent it.”
Ukrainians have pleaded for fast delivery of the air defenses and anti-missile systems, tanks, and heavy weapons they need to win the war, not just avoid losing it. But the West has expanded the types and quantities of defenses it is willing to give gradually, and there have been chronic delays. It took a year of urgent requests to get the U.S., the United Kingdom, and Germany to agree to send modern main battle tanks. It turns out, according to the Wall Street Journal, that the Abrams tanks the U.S. promised won’t be delivered for two years or so, “an eternity in warfare.”
Noting the “dangerous” sense of satisfaction in the West that Ukraine has “survived,” former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volcker wrote in a recent article for the Center for European Policy Analysis, “New Western weapons, such as longer range artillery and tanks are arriving slowly, and still, other systems (such as ATACAMS and multi-role aircraft) are denied … every step of the way we declined to provide certain systems … before ultimately providing them. Months were lost.”
The same incrementalism has applied to sanctions. Post-full-scale invasion, the U.S., Canada, and Europe increased major sanctions on Russia, but the sanctions were not comprehensive. The West froze assets of some corrupt, Putin-backing oligarchs, froze Russia partially out of SWIFT, and imposed limited sanctions on certain banks with which Russia launders and hides money. It seems it has taken new atrocities to elicit new action. One wishes the weaponry the U.S. and Western allies are now providing and the additional sanctions they are now imposing had been provided and imposed a year ago. How many lives could have been saved, war crimes prevented, cities spared from devastation? Dithering in the U.S., France, and especially Germany has stood in contrast to the principled decisiveness of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.
All too often, big powers push smaller powers toward self-destructive concessions, which then allow hostile powers to consolidate and expand elicit gains. We should beware peace plans that are more likely to lead to occupation and frozen conflict than peace. China’s ostensible “peace plan” for Ukraine should be viewed in light of Russia, China, and Iran’s anti-democratic schemes and military cooperation, the military assistance China and Iran have given Russia for the war, and their reported plans to provide significantly more. It should be viewed in light of Putin’s track record of ruthlessness and duplicity — his violation and exploitation of the Budapest Memorandum, which guaranteed Ukraine’s sovereignty and security, of arms control treaties, of Geneva and Astana agreements on Syria, and of the Minsk accords on Ukraine. Recall how Russia used “the peace process” in Syria to buy time and cover for more aggression. Putin will never surrender his goal of conquering (“liquidating”) all of Ukraine unless he’s convinced it is absolutely impossible. Sustainable peace requires Ukrainian victory.
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Even the emerging peace plan of Germany, France, and Britain should be seen with skepticism that weighs France’s and especially Germany’s pattern of moral relativism and appeasement. Officials of the three countries are said to have a “blueprint” for Ukraine agreeing to peace talks in exchange for the West giving Ukraine much more advanced weapons after the war ends. Imagine the U.S. in World War II, instead of agreeing to major military assistance to England via the Lend-Lease Act as the country was being bombed, urging England to “talk” to Hitler’s Germany and to wait until after the war for game-changing aid.
Would that Biden’s practices had lived up to his recent, more resolute rhetoric, Putin, who got away with hostilities and atrocities in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, and Crimea and with paramilitary and subversive activities across the world, might finally have suffered an irreversible defeat. Too little, too late won’t win the war. It could lead to a stalemate that favors Russia, confirms Putin’s hope that time is on his side, and influences China’s and Iran’s calculus. Russia’s genocidal war requires America’s decisive action and moral, strategic, and military resolve. There are those who say the U.S. response has been exemplary, and there are those who say the U.S. has been too generous. But history tells a different tale.
This article was originally published in The Washington Examiner on March 3, 2023. Read the full article here.