As Ukraine war enters pivotal phase, Biden must flex his power before it’s too late
As Russian forces slowly close in on besieged Sievierodonetsk — or rather what remains of it — the war in Ukraine is clearly in a new phase. With both sides losing as many as 200 men each day in largely static though devastating warfare, it seems to be only a question of time until attrition freezes the conflict, or leads to an unsatisfying settlement through which Ukrainians cede territory to the aggressor.
It does not have to be that way. The United States and our allies can double down on support for Ukraine in a way that allows its defense forces to cripple Russia’s resupply lines.
The politics seem stacked against that outcome. The Biden administration continues to drag its feet on weapons deliveries to Ukraine, in spite of a $40 billion bill Congress passed in May. Getting another such bill through Congress before the midterm election, should it become necessary, would be politically challenging.
A few weeks ago, President Biden revealed his self-deterrent instincts in a statement, quickly walked back by the administration, that the United States would not include “rocket systems that can strike into Russia.” While a small number of High Mobility Artillery Rockets Systems (HIMARS) are being provided to Ukraine’s military, Western assistance falls short of the numbers the Ukrainians say are necessary for achieving parity in the battlefield (that is, 300 mobile multiple rocket-launch systems, 1,000 howitzers, 500 tanks, 2,000 armored vehicles and 1,000 drones, according to Mykhaylo Podolyak from President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office).
There are obvious constraints to such efforts. My AEI colleague Giselle Donnelly notes that there may be only some 500 HIMARS in the world. Moreover, providing Ukraine with an ad hoc hodgepodge of equipment of different provenance creates obvious logistical, training and maintenance headaches. Very often, however, such concerns have been overstated, if not used disingenuously as a cover for an unwillingness to help Ukraine defeat Russia decisively.
Yet Ukraine’s early successes with artillery provide an excellent starting point for doubling down on our deliveries and tilting the balance on the battlefield in Ukraine’s favor. That includes giving Ukraine the ability to strike relevant targets within Russia with precision — railway junctions, bridges and depots for example — and also the firepower and munitions necessary to overwhelm Russian forces concentrated in places such as Luhansk and Donetsk.
If training programs for the new equipment take weeks or months, the relevant question for the administration is whether such programs are already underway — and if not, why? In crude terms, moreover, a tank is a tank. If anything, driving an M1 Abrams is more straightforward than operating a Soviet-made T-72, much like driving a modern automobile is easier than driving a 1980s Lada. Of course, the “But training!” objection does not explain why the United States has failed to facilitate the transfer of older equipment from NATO’s Eastern European countries that Ukrainians already know perfectly well, most notably the MiG-29 fighters.
Even in situations where a timely training of Ukrainian crews seems impractical, there are creative ways around such constraints. Before US entry into World War II, the American Volunteer Group, or the Flying Tigers, fought the Japanese in China using airplanes provided as military assistance by the US government. Getting a contingent of Western volunteers to fly and maintain an airplane as ubiquitous as F-16 is far from impossible and would essentially guarantee Ukraine’s air superiority.
Besides giving Ukraine everything it needs to prevail in its fight, there are also other, low-cost ways of strengthening President Zelensky’s hand. President Biden, joined by a coalition of the willing, should signal that Western powers are ready to guarantee Ukraine’s territory integrity once peace is reached by stationing their troops in Ukraine.
The biggest danger facing the West in Ukraine is not the continuation of the current conflict — awful as it is — but a premature “peace” concluded on the back of a stalemate and forced on a reluctant Ukrainian population. But that “peace” (in reality, an opportunity for Russia to rearm and attack again at a time of its choosing) is a matter of our choice, not of Ukraine’s necessity.
Dalibor Rohac is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. Twitter: @DaliborRohac