The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Lloyd Austin is right. Russia must be weakened.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at the U.S. Air Base in Ramstein, Germany, on April 26. (Andre Pain/AFP/Getty Images)

True to the definition of a Kinsley gaffe — a politician accidentally telling the truth — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said this week, “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.”

In some corners of the punditocracy, the remark was greeted with alarm. Some critics were concerned it would make Russian President and war criminal Vladimir Putin cranky. Others insisted it marked a shift in U.S. policy.

In reality, Austin simply stated the obvious. The goal of the United States from the onset of Russia’s aggression has been to defend an independent, democratic Ukraine. One does this by defeating the invader, which necessitates weakening it. It is not news that U.S. economic sanctions are designed to wreck the Russian economy, thereby prompting Putin (or others with influence) to consider ending the debacle. Nor is it news that the United States is arming Ukraine to provide it the means to destroy Russia’s military.

What is accurate is that the pace, extent and breadth of the operation to arm Ukraine have stepped up as the war has shifted to the Donbas region of Ukraine. The Post reports on the 40-country effort to ensure Ukraine has everything it needs to win this battle:

“We’ve got to move at the speed of war,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters after the day-long meeting [in Germany] with delegations from more than 40 nations gathered to hear the latest military assessments of the conflict and coordinate their efforts to aid Ukraine. “The briefings today laid out clearly why the coming weeks will be so crucial for Ukraine,” Austin said. . . .
“We’ve been pretty clear from the outset,” Austin said at his news conference. “We do want to make it harder for Russia to threaten its neighbors.” In the 62 days since the invasion began, he said, Russian land forces had been affected “in a very significant way” with substantial casualties, depleted stockpiles and loss of equipment, including the sinking this month of the Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, by a Ukrainian missile attack.
Russia will have difficulty reconstituting its forces because of Western sanctions and trade restrictions, he said.

Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, likewise confirmed that defending Ukraine will “involve a weakened Russia, a strengthened NATO . . . and a unity of the West.”

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Putin officials have now begun to whine that this is a “proxy” war, fanning the Russian paranoia that the West is out to encircle and destroy Russia. Well, this certainly is a proxy war insofar as the United States is supporting Ukraine as it fights on the front lines for self-determination and democracy. That’s the whole reason President Biden has organized an international economic sanctions regimen and why countries that are loath to provide lethal weapons to an ally are now doing so (albeit haltingly, in the case of Germany).

But Putin gets one thing very wrong: True to NATO’s mission as a defensive alliance, the West did not initiate the war in Ukraine. The conflict was one of choice. Putin and Putin alone brought on the ferocious response from the West, just as Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union provoked a mammoth response that eventually helped destroy the invaders. As Brookings Institution senior fellow Michael O’Hanlon tweeted: “We can disagree over US policy. . . . But never lose sight of what unites us — and of the fact that this is Putin’s war.”

There has been quite a lot of criticism from the right and from armchair quarterbacks in the national security community that Biden has acted too slowly and not done enough to arm Ukraine. These critics claim the administration needed their cogent prompting to get its policy on Ukraine right. That self-serving take might be accurate, but it is equally possible that in the early stages of the war, the amount of military aid now being provided to Ukraine was unnecessary and could not have been sufficiently absorbed by its forces. (They have to put the weapons somewhere safe from Russian attack.)

As Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby has said multiple times, the United States has coordinated with Ukraine’s military from the beginning to provide what it needed. The main “ask” that the Biden administration denied — using planes from a NATO base to defend Kyiv — was not, it turned out, needed to rebuff that part of the Russian assault.

So yes, the United States is trying to weaken Russia in a proxy war on behalf of democracy and a rules-based international order. And as difficult as it might be for critics to acknowledge, Biden has directed one of the most effective economic and military aid operations in modern history. Putin has already failed in his objective and hobbled his own country. For that, the brave Ukrainians and the Biden administration deserve ample credit.