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Opinion Defeating Putin will require larger U.S. commitments — and risks

U.S. military personnel load a howitzer, to be delivered for Ukrainian forces, into the cargo hold of a U.S. Air Force transport plane at March Air Reserve Base in California on April 21. (Cpl. Austin Fraley/U.S. Marine Corps via Reuters)
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The Russian war on Ukraine that many experts expected to last less than a week has entered its third month — a good time to take stock of both the results so far and the plans of the United States and its allies for what comes next. On the first point, there is much that is positive. Thanks largely to the courage and dedication of the Ukrainian people and armed forces, Russia has not only been denied swift victory but also driven back from the capital, Kyiv, and forced to regroup and concentrate its offensive efforts on Ukraine’s east and south. The United States and its NATO allies have pivoted from a strategy premised on the likelihood of rapid Russian victory to one aimed at aiding Ukraine’s surprisingly sustained fight, and — thwarting one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aims — the alliance has remained united. Not only that, it has toughened its stance on economic sanctions, with even reluctant Germany preparing to support a ban on Russian oil imports. Far from splitting under Russian pressure, NATO might soon actually grow, with the likely inclusion of Finland and Sweden.

And yet a longer, more costly military struggle looms. Russia’s aim is to push westward from its redoubts in Crimea and Donbas, eventually breaking through and encircling Ukrainian forces. Stopping this is the reason Ukraine needed an immediate infusion of heavy weaponry; actually enabling Ukraine to go on the counteroffensive later this spring and summer is the reason it will need still more in the coming weeks. Thus, President Biden’s request for $33 billion in new aid for Ukraine, of which $20 billion will be military, was not only appropriate but urgent, and Congress should respond accordingly. Coupled with the recent approval of a revived “lend-lease” system, Mr. Biden’s proposal puts the United States in position to bolster Ukraine over the long haul.

During a news conference on April 13 in Stockholm, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said she expects a quick decision regarding NATO membership. (Video: The Washington Post)

With long-term commitment comes long-term danger. As the complexity of Mr. Putin’s situation, military and political, grows, so does his inclination to simplify it through even greater use of force — or threats thereof. Hence Moscow’s recent attempts at energy blackmail against Europe, its rhetorical recasting of the war as a proxy battle between Russia and NATO, and its hints at the use of nuclear weapons. Mr. Putin’s own remark on Wednesday that Russia would make a “lightning-fast” response to “unacceptable” outside intervention is the sort of vague threat the United States can neither give in to nor ignore. When past U.S. policy has failed in Ukraine, it was often because, fearing to provoke Mr. Putin, it did not do enough to deter him. Obviously, the Biden administration must not err in the opposite direction now. But the record of the war so far, including Europe’s admirable determination to seek new energy sources, vindicates a policy of maximum firmness. Mr. Putin’s war aim is not merely to conquer Ukraine but to overthrow the international order itself. It’s worth accepting costs and taking risks to make sure that Russia fails — and emerges from the conflict unable to wage such aggression again.

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