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Opinion For now, Biden’s best course on Ukraine is the one he’s on

President Biden delivers remarks about the war in Ukraine at the White House on March 11. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Not quite three weeks since it began, the war in Ukraine seems stuck in a bloody status quo. Russian forces, having failed to achieve the quick victory they anticipated, remain positioned around major cities, including the capital, Kyiv. Against all odds, the best conceivable outcome of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression — military defeat at the hands of Ukraine, without direct NATO involvement — remains a possibility, albeit with an enormous cost in civilian life, imposed wantonly by Russia. Yet military victory for Mr. Putin seems all too conceivable as well, even if stable Russian political control thereafter is not. As a result, frustration is growing, understandably, among many in the United States and Europe, who wonder why, in addition to the military assistance for Kyiv and sanctions against Russia, the West is not doing more.

In our view, it is too soon to second-guess, much less abandon, the broadly successful course President Biden and his fellow democratic leaders have adopted. The key principle is to defend “every inch” of NATO territory but otherwise limit the alliance’s role to aiding Ukraine with arms, intelligence, money and humanitarian supplies — while punishing Russia. We say this even though Mr. Putin obviously meant to test the West’s “red line” by launching a devastating missile strike on a Ukrainian base about 15 miles from the border of NATO member Poland, and threatening more strikes on weapons supply lines. And we say it despite our own disappointment with Mr. Biden’s refusal to transfer combat aircraft from Poland to Ukraine.

Critics of Mr. Biden’s approach correctly argue that the West must show Russia that it will pay a heavy price, in blood and treasure, lest it attempt cross-border aggression against another country later; the critics incorrectly imply that Moscow has not been made to pay a heavy price. U.S. intelligence reports that Mr. Putin’s regime has reached out for resupply to China — against which national security adviser Jake Sullivan rightly warned Beijing — might be a sign of Russian internal disarray or even desperation. The same goes for reports that the Russian president has placed key foreign-intelligence officials under house arrest. As Russian morale deteriorates, it’s no time to risk reviving it by declaring a NATO no-fly zone or dispatching NATO ground troops into western Ukraine, thus converting Mr. Putin’s tale of a war against NATO from propaganda to reality.

It follows that, if the United States and its allies aren’t going to fight on Ukraine’s behalf, they also should not do its negotiating for it. Yet alongside the talk of greater direct NATO intervention, there is discussion of various possible settlements, in which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would, say, recognize Russian control of Crimea and forswear NATO membership in return for a cease-fire and Russian recognition. To put it mildly, it is premature to bless any outcome in which Russia could commit aggression, fail on the battlefield and yet emerge with any such gains.

The time for a different U.S. policy — toward either the fighting or the negotiations — might yet come. Certainly, the war’s catastrophic impact on civilians is a reason to search urgently for new and better ideas. For now, though, Washington’s best course is the one it’s on.

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Editorials represent the views of The Washington Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

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