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Opinion As Ukraine braces for a second round, the West has a duty to step up

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, center, speaks with journalists in the recaptured Ukraine city of Bucha near Kyiv on April 4. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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With the second bloody round of the war in Ukraine about to begin, the West should step up its assistance and move quickly to provide Kyiv with heavier weapons to resist a savage new Russian assault on the southeastern part of the country.

The first round of the war produced a decisive defeat for Russian invaders who had hoped to capture Kyiv from the north and topple the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky. Russian troops were battered, and they retreated north this month, leaving a gruesome trail of dead Ukrainians in the cities they were forced to abandon.

Russia is now regrouping for a campaign to control a slice of Ukraine stretching from the Donbas in the east all the way to Odessa at the western edge of Ukraine’s Black Sea coast. If the Russians succeed, they may hope to partition the country. But round two won’t end with a bell, as in a prizefight. Fierce Ukrainian resistance will continue within whatever territory the Russians have captured.

Russia isn’t likely to get a knockout in this next round. Instead, as U.S. officials have forecast this week, this fight will drag on. National security adviser Jake Sullivan said, “This next phase could be measured in months or longer.” Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, predicted “a very protracted conflict … at least measured in years.” President Biden said simply: “This war could continue for a long time.”

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This “long” war will be devastating, however it proceeds. “It’s a lose-lose situation,” former defense secretary Robert Gates told me during an interview on Wednesday. “The longer this war goes on, the worse it will be for both sides.” It may end with the strangulation of the Russian economy through sanctions, Ukraine’s cities in rubble — or both. It could also end in a Russian escalation, perhaps in the form of cyberattacks or even tactical nuclear weapons.

Given these dire prospects, averting a protracted war with a peace settlement that preserves Ukraine’s infrastructure, people and independence would be worth the price of neutrality that Zelensky has offered. But Pentagon officials tell me that Russian President Vladimir Putin isn’t ready for peace yet. He’s preparing a new assault to achieve an outcome he can claim as a victory.

As the armies prepare for renewed battle, several points seem clear. Russia initially underestimated the tenacity of the Ukrainian military, but so did the United States. The Pentagon expected that Russian forces could capture Kyiv and disable Ukraine’s military command centers in about a week. Thus, the weapons the United States initially supplied were light, shoulder-fired antitank and antiaircraft missiles suited for the insurgency that U.S. analysts expected would commence after Kyiv had fallen and the Ukrainian army was scattered.

But those forecasts in Moscow and Washington were wrong: The Ukrainian army held most of its ground, in a battlefield drama that military historians will be analyzing for years. Now, as Ukraine faces what’s likely to be a massive assault from Russian forces that are regrouping toward the east and south, it will need more potent weapons.

The United States is rushing new weapons that include advanced drones, laser-guided rocket systems and light-armored vehicles. NATO allies in eastern Europe can help more, by sending heavier weapons that remained in their inventories after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Sullivan said these could include “longer-range antiaircraft systems, artillery systems, and coastal defense systems.”

These weapons could stop Russia from a quick breakthrough in the southeast. Longer-range rockets and artillery could target Russian troops and equipment in staging areas as they enter Ukraine. Antiship missiles could disrupt Russian efforts to capture Odessa and other coastal targets. If Putin persists in his illegal invasion, Ukraine has every right to fight back with whatever weapons it can obtain.

Moving these weapons into Ukraine is urgent, while Russian forces are still regrouping. Transport from NATO countries that ring Ukraine should be easier now, with most Russian forces gone from the north and west of the country. The Russians may try to bomb those supply convoys, but as Gates noted, anyone who thinks it will be easy to cut off weapons shipments across Ukraine’s long border doesn’t remember the unstoppable traffic along the Ho Chi Minh trail during the Vietnam War.

Still, this is Ukraine’s war, not the United States’. Even as the Biden administration augments its military assistance, it should continue to avoid direct confrontation with Russia. The heavier weapons moving into Ukraine should be Russian-made rather than American, for example, T-72 rather than Abrams tanks. “It’s a fine line, but it’s meaningful,” argues Gates.

U.S. officials keep repeating that only Zelensky can make the ultimate decisions about war and peace. They’re right. It should be up to Ukrainians to decide what they are willing to concede, and how much risk and punishment they are willing to endure. But if the Ukrainians are determined to repel the invaders, the United States has a moral duty to do what it can to help them succeed.