Recent high-level visits to Ukraine, think tank panels, and media commentary reveal a growing Western consensus that Russia must fail in its unprovoked, premeditated war of aggression against Ukraine. This consensus echoes a recent Washington Post editorial, which argued: “To allow an outcome that rewards the Kremlin in any way would be a moral travesty. It would also deal a potentially lethal blow to the principle on which Western stability and civilized international conduct rests: that sovereign states cannot be invaded, subjugated and subjected to mass slaughter with impunity.” Similar sentiments can be found expressed on other editorial and op-ed pages. At the recent Munich Security Conference, participants agreed that thwarting Moscow’s strategic objectives requires backing Ukraine “for as long as it takes.” These sentiments are fine but reflect a contradiction that has dogged the Biden administration’s policy with respect to the war in Ukraine from the beginning: the belief that the war must end via negotiation and that Russia must not win—but without an explicit commitment to Ukrainian victory. This is a formula for a prolonged “frozen conflict,” with thousands of additional deaths on both sides and the potential loss over time of both American and allied public support. This tragic outcome need not happen.
Every war-winning strategy must not only consist of a desirable end—in this case Russia’s defeat—but must also contain ways and means to accomplish that end. The only sure way to guarantee Russian failure is to secure a Ukrainian victory on the battlefield that enables the total recovery of territory seized by Russia since 2014. The means to that end is to give Ukraine the tools, capabilities, and assistance it needs to win the war—not just to survive. That means destroying the invasion force and breaking the Russian army so that Moscow cannot use mass and entrenched defenses to prevent Ukraine from taking back Russia’s ill-gotten gains. This is the only plausible theory of victory that can lead to a successful outcome for Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin has indicated time and again that he has no intention of halting his aggression. Faced with tactical defeats and perhaps 200,000 casualties, he presses on, as indifferent to the one as to the other. He can only be stopped if his military is broken, catastrophically, in Ukraine and returns to Russia. History is replete with such outcomes. The French army was on the verge of mutiny in 1917, the German army broke in the fall of 1918 and, most important for our purposes, a badly led, inadequately equipped, and poorly motivated Imperial Russian Army collapsed in 1917. A series of battlefield defeats in the Donbas and in the South could potentially offer a path to regime change in Moscow, as the Russian people are finally confronted with the costs of this war in undeniable fashion. Political change in Moscow, therefore, is the first step to a real peace. Breaking Putin’s army is the first step to ending his aggression.
To be clear, a few dozen Western tanks and a few hundred other armored vehicles, while necessary, are not sufficient. As Phillips Payson O’Brien has powerfully argued, modern war is about logistics and production. Ukraine urgently needs (and urgently means now, not in 18 months) long-range strike systems to isolate Russian units, to destroy their logistic and supply bases, their lines of communications, their command-and-control networks, and their ammunition depots. This will require, among other things, air superiority, ATACMS missiles, Gray Eagle drones, and advanced air-to-ground munitions. They need not and should not come only from U.S. stocks, but from our other allies as well. But they must come soon. If Ukraine is to win, we must give them the tools and let them finish the job.
Moreover, as Russia moves to a war-economy footing, U.S. and Western policy makers must: 1) tighten the sanctions regime, for example by cutting off Russia from the international financial system, 2) enforce export controls, which have arguably done more to constrain Russian defense production than sanctions, and 3) block Russian access to defense stocks from China, North Korea, and Iran, including the interdiction of shipments by the latter two, which violate UN Security Council resolutions.
Finally, the United States, working with its allies, must lead the way in making the West once again the arsenal of democracy, not only for Ukraine, Taiwan, and others who face aggression by authoritarian regimes, but ultimately for us. The world has become much more dangerous for democracy. Protecting it will require reinvigorating the productive capacities of a defense-industrial base that has been allowed to shrink considerably since the height of the Cold War. This will require focused attention from the White House, the Department of Defense, and the Congress. Peacetime standards will not suffice. Our stocks of war reserve munitions across the Army, Navy, and Air Force are dangerously low, and the war in Ukraine is demonstrating the degree to which modern warfare exhausts stockpiles rapidly. That war, and China’s and North Korea’s aggressive intentions in the Pacific, require a strong deterrent if we are to forestall future attacks. We and our allies are more than capable of rebuilding what our armed forces need. This is a job we know how to do, and it is past time that we get on with it.
Eric S. Edelman is counselor at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. He was U.S. ambassador to Finland and Turkey and under secretary of defense for policy from 2005–09.
Franklin C. Miller served for three decades as a senior nuclear policy and arms control official in the Pentagon and on the National Security Council staff. He is a principal at the Scowcroft Group.
Image: President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy prepares to welcome a delegation headed by President of the Council of Ministers of the Italian Republic Giorgia Meloni. (Office of the President of Ukraine)
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