Western governments applaud themselves for helping Ukraine resist Russian invasion, and some credit is certainly due. But with the first anniversary of the war comes a new moment of decision: will the US and Europe allow the war to drag on in a brutal standoff, or will they provide enough military aid for Ukraine to reclaim its territory and win the war?
That’s the strategic decision that’s implicitly surfacing in the background when Ukraine’s allies meet at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany on Friday. The Ukraine Defense Contact Group is made up of 50 governments and will be attended by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Mark Milley. Your decisions will set the terms of the war for the Ukrainian side for the rest of the winter and beyond.
The Ukrainians fought a heroic fight and regained part of the territory seized by Russia at the beginning of the war. But the grim truth is that despite his humiliating setbacks, Vladimir Putin is not letting up. Mr Putin is venting his frustration by throwing rockets at apartment buildings, with one in Dnipro this week killing 40 people, including children. American Patriot missile defenses are weeks or months away from arrival while Ukrainian troops train on the system in Oklahoma.
Russia may be preparing for another offensive. The Institute for the Study of War warned this week that Russia is “preparing to conduct decisive strategic action over the next six months,” possibly to try to overrun the Luhansk Oblast to the east.
Mr Putin could also expand his conventional military force from the current 1.35 million to 1.5 million troops. He works to revive Moscow’s arms production capability and calls every dictator in his Rolodex to arms. Russian losses do not mean much to him. He believes that as the war drags on, he will outlast Western support for Kyiv and still have much of Ukraine under his control.
That could prove correct if Ukraine fails to build on its achievements in the second half of 2022 and reclaim its territory soon. The Ukrainians clearly have the will to keep fighting, as Vitali Klitschko casually notes, but they need more and better weapons than the West has provided so far.
A looming fiasco over Ukraine’s urgent request for tanks highlights the problem. The UK said this week it would supply Ukraine with Challenger 2 tanks, but only 14. According to news reports Wednesday, Germany will not sign off on the transfer of its Leopard tanks unless the US provides its own Abrams tanks Disposal. This military pas de do should not embarrass either the Germans or the White House.
Leopards are excellent main battle tanks in service with the European militaries, with around 2,000 in NATO cabinets by one estimate. Military analysts have suggested that the Ukrainians would need at least 100 to make a dent on the battlefield and the priority should be to deploy the tanks quickly and in large numbers. The US Marines recently withdrew their tank battalions as part of a change of strategy, and these Abrams could be put to good use in Ukraine.
But the Biden administration is leaking that the aid it intends to announce this week will not include tanks. Nor will the US offer the army a tactical missile system that would allow the Ukrainians to hit targets at a distance, fired from the Himars systems that have been used to such great effect.
This reserve is a profile of mysterious shyness. The White House’s fear is evident that if Mr Putin continues to lose ground, the war will escalate. The Russian is capable of anything, but there is no moral or strategic reason for giving Ukraine just enough guns to bleed for months with no chance of victory.
The stronger argument is to help Ukraine win quickly with more weapons and to remove US restrictions on how Ukraine wages war. The US has said Ukrainian attacks on Russian territory are taboo, and the practical effect has been to let Moscow concentrate forces on eastern Ukraine without having to defend some of its own depots and bases. Why should a dictator who has crossed a foreign border be able to claim his territory as sacrosanct?
The retaliation is that Mr Putin might unleash a nuclear weapon, but the past few months have shown that in any case he will base that decision on his own calculations. If he does, he will face even more global ostracism and Western aid to Ukraine.
A long and ugly stalemate in Ukraine would leave Russia in a position to threaten its neighbors for years, at even greater cost to the US and Europe. President Biden receives praise for holding Ukraine’s coalition together despite economic and military strains. But the praise will turn to harsh and deserved criticism as the war rages on and Russia wins its bloody war of attrition.
Journal Editor’s Report: Paul Gigot interviews House China Specialist Mike Gallagher. Images: Zuma Press Composite: Mark Kelly
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