Biden’s Ukraine strategy risks prolonging a violent stalemate

Airmen and civilians from the 436th Aerial Port Squadron at Dover Air Force Base, Del., prepare ammunition, weapons and other equipment for shipment to Ukraine on Jan. 21. (Mauricio Campino/U.S. Air Force/AP)
Airmen and civilians from the 436th Aerial Port Squadron at Dover Air Force Base, Del., prepare ammunition, weapons and other equipment for shipment to Ukraine on Jan. 21. (Mauricio Campino/U.S. Air Force/AP)

Last week, the United States and its NATO partners convened in Madrid to celebrate their unity in support of Ukraine as it fights Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal aggression. This week, the grim reality on the ground is reemerging. Ukrainian forces don’t have the weapons they need to resist the Russian onslaught in the east, much less push Russian troops off their land.

The Biden administration deserves credit for giving Ukraine massive amounts of help and rallying European allies to the cause. At the same time, concerns are rising that President Biden’s risk-averse strategy amounts to giving Kyiv just enough weapons to maintain a violent stalemate but not to win the war. Winter is coming, and if Russia controls large chunks of Ukrainian territory when the Donbas region freezes over, Putin’s gains will become harder, if not impossible, to roll back in the spring.

While U.S. and European leaders were huddling in Spain, Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican James E. Risch (Idaho) was in Ukraine, touring the country. He was escorted by Ukrainian forces because the State Department refused to provide him security once he crossed the Ukrainian border. He met with Volodymyr Zelensky at the Ukrainian president’s office in Kyiv, and came away with the conclusion that the current U.S. strategy has not properly adjusted to the latest phase of the fighting.

Russian forces are pummeling Ukrainian civilian and military targets in the Donbas with their superior artillery. Ukrainian forces are fighting back valiantly, but they are still not receiving enough of the weapons that might give them the advantage — including long-range air defenses, longer-range artillery, heavy armor and fighter planes. The White House process of trying to parse which weapons would be “escalatory” is a recipe for a stalemate, Risch told me in an interview.

“If you are just giving weapons to fight to a stalemate, that’s not a good situation and that has consequences”, he said. “We need to be in or out. And if we are in, we need to give them what they need to win”.

Risch’s concerns about the slow pace of the Biden administration’s Ukraine weapons program are shared by some of his leading colleagues on the other side of the aisle, including House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.).

In Madrid, Biden promised that the United States and Europe will support Ukraine in its fight against Russian aggression “as long as it takes”. But he didn’t say that he would give Ukraine the means to shorten that timeline. Even though the United States has pledged billions to support Ukraine’s military, only a fraction of those resources have arrived, leaving the Ukrainian military badly outgunned in the Donbas.

Privately, several administration officials told me that the delays are not a result of any problem with the actual delivery of weapons. The core problem is the protracted hand-wringing inside the Biden policy team over each weapons decision. Risch said this is caused by a misguided concern that if Putin starts to lose badly, he might escalate further.

“As a result of that [the White House is] taking the middle path. And the middle path is the wrong path here”, he said. “They can win this, but they can’t do it themselves. They will provide the fight if we provide the weapons”.

Last month, the United States provided four High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, which are reportedly making a difference on the battlefield. But Ukrainians on the ground said they need 50, not four — and they needed them months ago. In Madrid, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the United States is finalizing the purchase of one Norwegian-made NASAMS medium-long range antiaircraft missile system for Ukraine. But the contracts aren’t yet signed.

The Biden team insists that Zelensky is in the lead, and that the U.S. strategy is to give Ukraine the means to have the upper hand whenever a peace negotiation takes place.

“President Zelensky, he gets to determine how victory is decided and when and on what terms”, the National Security Council’s coordinator for communications, John Kirby, told Fox News Sunday. “And [what] we’re going to do is continue to make sure that can succeed on the battlefield so that he can succeed at the table”.

But at the current pace of support, the stalemate is only likely to persist — a recipe for endless war, destruction and human suffering. Zelensky reportedly told the NATO leaders Ukraine needs to push back Russian forces within months, not years. This week, he unveiled a recovery plan that calls for $750 billion in international investment and support. What will that tab be if the war goes on another year, or another five years?

All wars end with a negotiation, when one or both sides are exhausted enough to seek an end to the fighting. What’s clear is that neither Ukraine nor Russia is at this point of exhaustion yet. But the longer the war goes on, the more pressure mounts on Western economies and the greater the devastation and suffering of Ukrainians.

“Urgency is very important”, Risch said. “This has got to be done before the world looks the other way”.

By dragging its feet on giving Zelensky the weapons he is asking for, the United States risks ensuring that the stalemate persists, which ultimately redounds to Putin’s benefit. The Biden administration underestimated Ukrainian forces in the first stage of the war. It must not repeat the same mistake now.

Josh Rogin is a columnist for the Global Opinions section of The Washington Post. He writes about foreign policy and national security. Rogin is also a political analyst for CNN. He is the author of the book Chaos Under Heaven: Trump, Xi, and the Battle for the 21st Century.

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