The West is finally giving Ukraine the weapons it needs to win

Members of the Ukrainian Volunteer Corps fire a howitzer in the Zaporizhzhia region of Ukraine on March 28. (Reuters)
Members of the Ukrainian Volunteer Corps fire a howitzer in the Zaporizhzhia region of Ukraine on March 28. (Reuters)

President Biden’s rhetoric on the Russo-Ukraine War has undergone a telling metamorphosis that reflects the conflict’s shifting fortunes.

When the unprovoked Russian invasion began, Biden backed Ukraine with weapons and sanctions but implicitly accepted that Russia might occupy the country. He said on Feb. 24: “History has shown time and again how swift gains in territory eventually give way to grinding occupations, acts of mass civil — mass civil disobedience and strategic dead-ends”. In his State of the Union address on March 1, he again acknowledged the possibility of Russian victory, saying that while Russian dictator Vladimir Putin “may make gains on the battlefield, he will pay a continuing high price over the long run”.

By contrast, on Thursday, in announcing another aid package to Ukraine, Biden vowed that Putin “will never succeed in dominating and occupying all of Ukraine”. That still left open the possibility that Putin will succeed in occupying some of Ukraine, as Russia has been doing since 2014, but it was a far more optimistic assessment of Ukraine’s prospects after two months of fighting.

The kind of aid the United States and its allies have been delivering is indicative of Ukraine’s growing success. In the beginning, the West was sending handheld weapons such as Stinger antiaircraft missiles and Javelin and NLAW antitank missiles, designed for a guerrilla resistance against a Russian occupation. But in recent weeks, the West has been providing heavier weaponry, including artillery, tanks and long-range air defenses. These are weapons designed to win the war, not prolong it.

For the second straight week, Biden announced on Thursday an $800 million aid package to Ukraine. That brings to $3.4 billion the total military aid that United States has pledged to Ukraine since the invasion began. The new package includes 72 155mm howitzers (towed guns that can hurl a 90-pound shell 25 miles) along with 144,000 artillery rounds. Also included are 121 new Phoenix Ghost drones that can track targets for six hours and explode on contact. The previous week’s aid package included 300 Switchblade drones, 200 M113 armored personnel carriers, 18 155mm howitzers and 11 Mi-17 helicopters.

The U.S. European Command has set up a task force in Stuttgart, Germany, to coordinate aid for Ukraine. Eastern European countries are quietly sending T-72 tanks while Western European countries are backfilling Eastern European armories with their own tanks. France just announced it would send Milan antitank missiles and Caesar self-propelled howitzers. Canada is sending 155mm howitzers with precision-guided Excalibur rounds. The Netherlands is sending armored vehicles and other heavy weapons. These are all votes of confidence in Ukraine’s ability to prevail. The one conspicuous holdout is Germany, which shamefully still refuses to send heavy weaponry or cut off energy purchases that finance Russian war crimes.

President Volodymyr Zelensky has been bitterly critical of the West for not doing enough to aid his embattled country, but on Friday he said that Ukraine’s allies have “finally heard us” and are now providing “exactly what we asked for”.

This does not augur well for Russia’s last-ditch offensive in Ukraine’s Donbas region. The United States has provided 10 antitank weapons for every Russian tank in Ukraine, and Ukraine reportedly now has more tanks and better artillery than the invaders. Russia does not have anywhere close to the 3-to-1 advantage that attackers ordinarily needed to prevail against determined defenders.

It might not matter if Russia had air superiority, but it doesn’t. While there are still no reported transfers of fighter aircraft to Ukraine (some may be occurring covertly), an influx of spare parts from the West has allowed Ukraine to put 20 more aircraft into service. Ukrainian aircraft, combined with surface-to-air batteries, continue denying Russia control of the skies.

Little wonder, then, that the Institute for the Study of War reported on Friday that Russian forces had secured only “minor gains” in eastern Ukraine. Russia might still be able to carve out additional territory in the east, but it’s just as likely at this point that Ukraine will be able to retake some of the land it lost at the beginning of the war. Russia’s already badly battered forces, which have been denied sufficient time to rest and refit, will not be able to continue attacking for much longer.

I have been critical of the Biden administration for not doing enough to aid Ukraine, especially for not facilitating the transfer of Polish MiG-29 jets. But I have to give credit where it’s due. The president is rising to the occasion. He is shedding some of his inhibitions about provoking the Kremlin and once again turning America into the arsenal of democracy.

As long as the West keeps providing ammunition (which is expended at a rapid rate in battle), Ukraine will have the weaponry it needs to prevail against Russian aggression. This would never have happened if Donald Trump — who just admitted he might not have defended NATO allies against Russian aggression — were still president.

Max Boot is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam”.

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