U.S. policy makes Ukraine fight by rules Russia doesn’t follow

Last week Ukraine pulled off a bold military feat: three drone strikes deep in Russia, one against a target less than 150 miles from Moscow.

The drones attacked bases from which Russia has launched airstrikes against Ukrainian cities, the power grid and other infrastructure.

It’s not clear if they did much damage; At least two aircraft were hit and a fuel tank was set on fire. But they revealed a surprising weakness in Russia’s air defenses.

Equally striking was Russia’s muted response. There were no loud denunciations or threats of retaliation, perhaps out of embarrassment or a desire not to upset Russian civilians.

The Biden administration’s response was also curious. No one congratulated the courageous Ukrainians on the mission’s success. Instead, officials were quick to clarify that the United States had nothing to do with it.

“We neither encouraged nor enabled Ukrainians to strike inside Russia,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken told reporters.

Other officials added that the United States has not provided Ukraine with weapons that could reach as far as the drones flew.

It’s time to change that.

The government’s dour response to the drone strikes paralleled the self-imposed limits observed by Biden’s team as it pumped billions of dollars in arms and economic aid to the embattled government in Kiev: no US or other NATO troops in Ukraine; no NATO aircraft in Ukrainian airspace; no NATO-supplied weapons capable of penetrating deep into Russia.

The goal is to avoid crossing borders that Russian President Vladimir Putin might consider “red lines” — actions that could provoke him to retaliate against the West.

“We are trying to avoid World War III,” President Biden has said repeatedly.

The result has been an implicit rulebook whereby Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have shown a degree of restraint towards one another. NATO has pumped military supplies into Ukraine; Russia has largely spared the supply convoys from direct attacks, at least in areas near Ukraine’s border with Poland and other NATO countries.

In this respect, the policy is successful. When two missiles landed near a Polish village last month, US officials were quick to determine they were stray Ukrainian missiles – a crisis averted.

But the unintended result of US policy has been a war in which Ukraine and Russia are fighting under unequal rules.

Russia’s reticence towards NATO stands in sharp contrast to the apparent lack of borders for its bombing of Ukrainian cities: Russia has attacked residential areas, hospitals and schools, as well as legitimate military targets.

By contrast, Ukraine largely avoided firing on Russian territory until last week, with the exception of a handful of ammunition depots and fuel depots near the border — all military targets.

Another curiosity: no one knows exactly where Putin’s red lines are.

“They were careful not to set red lines that they knew they were going to enforce,” Alexander R. Vershbow, a former US ambassador to Russia, told me. “They have brought us to self-deterrence.”

Ukraine has tested the alleged lines multiple times with no apparent penalty. Moscow protested after Ukraine shelled military installations near Belgorod, some 40 km inside Russian territory, but Kiev was undeterred.

The United States was more cautious. The government has turned down Ukraine’s repeated requests for the Army Tactical Missile System, an advanced surface-to-surface missile with a range of nearly 200 miles, over fears that Ukrainian units could fire across the border.

Deploying ATACMS, as the missiles are called, would risk “putting the road to a third world war,” Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in July.

But Ukraine has continued to plead for the missiles, and a growing number of critics, including congressmen from both parties, have urged the government to relax the ban.

“The government tends to play it safe,” said Steven Pifer, a former US ambassador to Ukraine who prefers to supply ATACMS to Ukraine.

Pifer has proposed a reasonable compromise: the US could supply Ukraine with the long-range missiles but ban Kiev from firing them at Russia.

“ATACMS would be very effective within Ukraine; They would make it much more difficult for the Russians to fight the war,” he said. “ATACMS would force them to withdraw their artillery and ammunition far from the front lines.”

The ban on firing the missiles at Russia would enforce itself, he added.

“The Ukrainians would know that their access [to ATACMS] would end if they break the rule.”

Supplying these long-range missiles to Ukraine, even under restrictions, would have far greater military implications than last week’s drone strikes, which one expert dismissed as “boutique attacks.”

Russia is waging a war of attrition, trying to wear down Ukraine’s armed forces, demoralize its people and discourage its allies.

“Time is an important factor here,” warned Pifer. “Western economic sanctions against Russia have not yet had their full effect.

“Here’s the key question,” he added. “Will economic sanctions undermine Russia’s will to fight before damage to Ukraine’s economy and infrastructure undermines theirs?”

Ukraine still needs all the help it can get, starting with economic aid and anti-aircraft missiles – and including these ATACMS.

https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2022-12-11/ukraine-drones U.S. policy makes Ukraine fight by rules Russia doesn’t follow

Alley Einstein

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