Some Risks Are Worth Taking for Ukraine

As a weekly columnist rather than a daily reporter, I have the luxury of choosing what I feel is most important to write about. The war in Ukraine may disappear from the front pages of newspapers, but it should remain at the forefront of our minds. Vladimir Putin’s brutal and unprovoked attack could destroy a sovereign, independent and democratic country that poses no military threat to Russia, and it threatens to undermine the peace Europe has enjoyed since the end of World War II.

The struggle for Ukraine is a hinge of history. If the US and its allies successfully help Kyiv repel Russian aggression, the global forces that support democracy and the rule of law will be strengthened — perhaps enough to reverse the global decline in democratic governance over the past decade. If America fails, autocrats around the world will conclude that Democrats lack the will to defend their own cause. While China’s rulers are watching Taiwan, they are also watching Donbass.

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Echoing sentiment in the West, President Biden has decided that the US must resist Russian aggression without directly intervening on the side of Ukraine. We don’t know if this self-imposed limitation will prevent Ukraine’s success. But one thing is clear: we must give the Ukrainians every reasonable chance to do so. This will require America and Europe to take prudent risks.

For example, reports from the frontline suggest that the longer-range missiles that the US has started sending to Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government are potential game-changers. With these weapons, the Ukrainians are destroying Russian arms depots and command centers far behind the front lines. In an artillery-dominated war, these systems could allow Ukraine to halt the Russian advance and go on the offensive. They have already had such an impact that the Russian Defense Minister has made them a priority target.

Sending many more of these weapons to Ukraine could temporarily deplete our reserves and reduce the combat readiness of some active duty units until new production can fill the gap. While the Biden administration’s reluctance is understandable, it’s a risk worth taking because of the stakes in Ukraine.

Another example: As Iran prepares to send Russia hundreds of sophisticated drones to replace those lost in the war, Biden administration officials have been reluctant to provide Ukraine with equally capable drones, in part because they fear that Mr Putin would see this as an escalation. But battlefield evidence suggests that without drones to locate enemy artillery positions, the effectiveness of long-range missiles will diminish over time. Accompanying Russia’s move to increase its drone inventory is a necessary countermeasure — and another example of prudent risk-taking.

So far, however, Washington and its allies have played it safe. According to Ulrich Speck, a German foreign policy analyst quoted in The New York Times,

The West is supplying Ukraine with “just enough” arms “to survive” but “not enough to regain territory”. As Mr. Speck puts it, “The idea seems to be that Russia shouldn’t win, but neither should it lose.”

It’s not clear how widespread this idea is in the Biden administration, but it appears to be popular with Western European governments. French President Emmanuel Macron has repeatedly insisted that Russia must be resisted but not “humiliated”.

But how can it really be considered a humiliation to give Ukraine the weapons to defend against Russia? The Treaty of Versailles may have imposed a humiliating peace on Germany and set the stage for the next world war, but forcing Russian troops to retreat from Ukrainian territory to which they have no legitimate claim certainly belongs in a different category.

As I have argued before, time is not necessarily on the side of Ukraine – or the West. The war has accelerated an already existing surge in inflation while dampening economic growth and increasing the risk of a recession. So far, Europe’s efforts to reduce its dependence on Russian energy have imposed a higher price on its own economies than Russia’s. Many European countries may lack sufficient energy supplies to survive the winter. If so, popular dissatisfaction is bound to increase.

Support for the Ukraine war is taking a political toll in Europe. Disagreements over support for Ukraine brought down Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s coalition in Italy, and Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s coalition has shipped arms to Ukraine at a shockingly slow rate, partly due to ambivalence within his own party. Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a fervent supporter of Ukraine, is stepping down and there is no guarantee his successor will match his enthusiasm.

Ukraine’s performance on the battlefield for the remainder of the year will certainly shape and possibly determine its fate. Now is the time to give the Zelenskyi government all the help we can – arms, training, money and unwavering moral support. It is not enough to admire the resourceful, courageous willingness to fight and die of Ukrainians. We must give them every chance to turn the tide and drive out the invaders. This is not the time for half measures – or for talks about negotiation.

Journal Editor’s Report (6/5/22): Paul Gigot interviews military analyst Seth Jones. Images: AP/Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

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