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Opinion Why the West must boost military assistance to Ukraine

Ukrainian soldiers fire a Javelin antitank missile during drills in February. (Ukrainian Joint Forces Operation/Via Reuters)

Ukrainians will ultimately defeat Vladimir Putin’s army. Ukraine will be sovereign and free once again. Only two questions are unanswered: How long will it take? And how many Ukrainians will have to die before Putin’s soldiers finally leave?

The goal for the West in general, and the United States in particular, must be to hasten the defeat of Putin’s army. Three scenarios for liberating Ukraine from Russian attack and occupation should shape the appropriate Western strategies for helping end this horrible war as fast as possible.

Of course, the best outcome for Ukraine and the rest of the world is a total Russian defeat. In this scenario, Russian armed forces fail to capture Ukraine’s major cities, including, most importantly, Kyiv, while rapid economic meltdown inside Russia compels retreat. This outcome is the most desirable but also the least likely.

The second-best outcome is stalemate on the battlefield, which produces ripe conditions for a settlement. Both Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will find it hard to accept this end game. Putin would have to acknowledge that he waged a senseless war, killing thousands of Russian soldiers and thousands of innocent Ukrainians (ethnic Russians and Ukrainians alike), only to achieve what he de facto already had — control over Crimea and parts of the Donbas region as well as Ukrainian neutrality. That, after all, was the status quo on Feb. 23, the day before Putin launched his invasion. In this scenario, what was tacitly and ambiguously accepted would be codified de jure in a peace settlement. Zelensky also would have to agree to conditions, including perhaps neutrality, that would be hard to accept.

The worst outcome would be a Russian occupation of major Ukrainian cities followed by a prolonged guerrilla war. With snipers, suicide and car bombs, and acts of nonviolent civic resistance, Ukrainians would continue to resist Putin’s occupation until Russian soldiers go home. I have no doubt that Ukrainians will one day liberate their country again. In contrast with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in Eastern Europe after World War II, Putin does not have a sufficiently large army, willing collaborators, or a compelling idea to maintain Ukrainian occupation for long. The duration and human cost of this scenario, however, could be horrific, not unlike the carnage in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation.

All three scenarios make clear that more Western military assistance, especially weapons that can shoot down Russian airplanes and rockets or destroy artillery, is immediately needed for ending the war. Zelensky, in his address to Congress Wednesday, has powerfully reminded us of this fundamental point. More fighter jets, more surface-to-air missiles systems and more counter-fire weapons against long-range artillery are needed immediately. In parallel, the West must ratchet up economic sanctions against Russia every single week until one of these three endgames is reached.

Obviously, new weapons would help achieve Scenario One, however unlikely. But military stalemate is necessary for achieving Scenario Two, and that can happen only if Ukrainian soldiers fight Russian forces to a standstill. Despite unexpected Ukrainian battlefield victories, stalemate has not yet been achieved. Right now, Putin has no incentive to negotiate if his armed forces, most of which are still intact, continue to make advances and close in on Ukraine’s major cities. He is still hoping to win.

Of course, President Biden and his team cannot escalate U.S. involvement in ways that might trigger nuclear war. Mutually assured destruction remains in place. Biden, Chinese leader Xi Jinping, and the leaders of other nuclear powers must engage directly with Putin to receive assurances that he does not intend to blow up the planet.

But that worst-case, very low-probability scenario cannot be invoked as an excuse against new military supplies from NATO countries. If the risk of Russia’s escalation can be assessed to be below the nuclear threshold, then Putin’s threats of new actions in response to the transfer of MiG-29 fighter jets or S-300 surface-to-air missile systems are cheap talk. The transfer of planes or air defense systems will not trigger World War III. Given how poorly the Russian army has performed against Ukraine’s relatively small army, would Putin really escalate and attack the most mighty alliance in the world, anchored by the strongest military power in the world, the United States? Putin may be angry and unhinged, but he’s not suicidal. Threats to NATO front-line states become serious only if Putin wins in Ukraine.

On the diplomatic front, Biden and U.S. allies and partners should convey to Putin that they are ready to gradually lift sanctions in return for a complete Russian military withdrawal. All interlocutors with Putin should make this crystal clear. If Putin and Zelensky signal a credible commitment to negotiate, NATO leaders should work with Xi, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, or U.N. Secretary General António Guterres to help mediate these peace talks.

Biden rightly has rejected calls for implementing a no-fly zone, a euphemism for a declaration of war against Russia. But short of that, Biden and his partners in the free world must do everything they can to create conditions for ending this horrific war. In all three scenarios, Ukrainians eventually win. Our task in the West — those of us standing on the sidelines, watching Ukrainians bravely fight invading Russian armed forces alone — is to do all that we can to hasten the end of the war, and thus save Ukrainian (and Russian) lives. More weapons and more sanctions do just that.