The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Russia is retreating. Now give Ukraine the tools to finish the job.

Wrecks of Russian military vehicles on the front line near Kyiv on March 29. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)
4 min

Russia’s deputy defense minister announced on Tuesday that Moscow has decided to “fundamentally cut back military activity in the direction of Kyiv and Chernihiv” in order to “increase mutual trust for future negotiations to agree and sign a peace deal with Ukraine.” There was talk of progress in negotiations in Istanbul between Ukraine and Russia, and the Pentagon reported the movement of some Russian units away from Kyiv.

What to make of these developments? This is not a sudden outbreak of benevolence on the part of the war criminals in the Kremlin. Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s evil war of aggression continues in the rest of Ukraine — as demonstrated by a missile strike on the Mykolaiv government building in southern Ukraine on Tuesday morning and the continuing siege of Mariupol, a port on the Sea of Azov, with heavy loss of civilian life.

Putin is simply acknowledging reality: His forces are losing the war around Kyiv. Indeed, following the success of a recent Ukrainian counteroffensive around the capital, Russian troops are in danger of encirclement. The Russian pullback, in short, has nothing to do with increasing “mutual trust” and everything to do with saving its forces from defeat.

The Russians apparently hope to find greater success by shifting focus to the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Their plan appears to be to encircle Ukrainian troops in the east by attacking from both north and south — but that depends on taking Mariupol, whose defenders are resisting with a desperate ferocity that recalls the Battle of the Alamo.

Follow Max Boot's opinionsFollow

How should the United States and the rest of the West react to this latest Russian maneuver? By doubling down on aid to Ukraine and sanctions on Russia.

Ukraine’s position today is a bit reminiscent of Britain’s after the end of the Battle of Britain in the fall of 1940. The Royal Air Force had saved the British Isles from a German invasion. The existential danger was past. But Britain still faced a major drain on its resources as it fought alone against the Nazi juggernaut. Its only hope was aid from the United States — “the arsenal of democracy,” as President Franklin D. Roosevelt called it.

On Feb. 9, 1941, Prime Minister Winston Churchill said in a radio address: “We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle, nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down. Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.” The United States responded with the Lend-Lease Act, which provided supplies in “every conceivable form,” from military hardware to canned meat.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is today’s Churchill, and President Biden is today’s FDR. The United States must do at least as much for the Ukrainians as it once did for the British. Both countries, after all, are fighting the same battle for freedom. Both have earned the world’s admiration and support.

Since January 2021, the United States has provided Ukraine with $2 billion of assistance, including Stinger and Javelin missiles that are taking a heavy toll on Russian aircraft and tanks. But Zelensky wants even more aid — and we should provide it even if that means ramping up production of Stingers, Javelins and other munitions that are rapidly being expended.

We cannot meet Zelensky’s demand for a no-fly zone without risking a war with Russia, but there is plenty we can safely do to keep the pressure on the faltering Russian war machine. Zelensky wants even more biting sanctions, from disconnecting the entire Russian financial network from the SWIFT system of interbank transfers to cutting off sales of Russian oil and gas to Europe. He also wants even more weapons systems, including aircraft, tanks, multiple-launch rocket systems and longer-range air defenses such as the S-300.

It is ridiculous that the West hesitates to comply with his requests while Ukraine is fighting a battle for survival against desperate odds. Biden seems to think that providing MiG-29s would cross some red line with Russia, while French President Emmanuel Macron has expressed similar concerns about providing tanks. Relax. Putin can’t even win a war against Ukraine; he is not about to start a war with NATO.

The Russian warmonger is on his heels. Now the race is on to see who can rearm and retool faster: Ukraine or Russia? The West must ensure that Ukraine has the weapons to keep pressing its military advantage.

A Russian defeat — meaning a pullback to the lines of Feb. 23 — is essential to save Ukraine and safeguard the liberal international order. The Ukrainians are willing to fight on despite their heartbreaking losses. We just need to give them the tools to finish the job.