The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden set clear goals for Ukraine. That could hold the West together.

President Biden speaks during a meeting on Capitol Hill on June 1. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The tide of war in Ukraine has shifted against the nation’s defenders. After being driven back from the capital, Kyiv, and other major cities in the north of the country, Russian forces regrouped and launched a more focused attack on the southeastern Donbas region. The port of Mariupol fell on May 16 and the Russians are at the brink of taking Severodonetsk, the last large city they do not hold in the province of Luhansk. Gone is the near-euphoria about Ukraine’s early military successes. A new time of testing is at hand, both for Ukrainians themselves and for their supporters in the U.S.-led NATO alliance. We do not doubt the staying power of the former; but what about the latter?

There have been worrying indications of flagging resolve among the United States’ European partners. Various governments have hinted they would push for a cease-fire that might leave Russia in possession of conquered territory. Germany failed to follow through quickly on promises to supply heavy weapons systems to Ukraine. And the 27-member European Union dickered for weeks over a ban on Russian crude oil imports, as billions of euros worth of purchases meanwhile continued — funding Moscow’s war effort. Cracks were bound to appear in Europe’s united front, given the economic pain the continent is experiencing because of the war and war-related sanctions, and how unevenly that pain is felt by countries depending on how much they rely on Russian energy. Instead of rushing much-needed long-range rocket systems to Ukraine, the Biden administration spent precious time making sure that they would not be used to attack Russian territory directly, apparently in deference to fears of provoking wider Russian aggression.

No doubt one reason Russian President Vladimir Putin has persisted in his war after his early setbacks is his assumption that the ever-fractious West will not be able to sustain a united front against him. And yet, the international pro-Ukraine coalition is still essentially holding. The E.U. at last agreed this week to ban all but about 10 percent of Russian oil imports by the end of the year. Germany announced on Wednesday that it would supply Ukraine its most modern antiaircraft system, along with 15 tanks. President Biden has decided to send Ukraine the United States’ High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, capable of precisely striking distant targets, albeit only with less-capable ammunition so as to prevent strikes into Russia.

Most important, the United States is articulating clear objectives for the conflict that are capable of winning support — or at least acquiescence — across the alliance. Mr. Biden put them in writing Tuesday, in a New York Times op-ed. There was a modicum of reassurance to Mr. Putin, and the most skittish Europeans, that the United States “will not try to bring about his ouster.” Otherwise, the president’s position was, in essence, peace through strength. The United States seeks a democratic, independent, sovereign and prosperous Ukraine that can defend itself. While the United States will not impose territorial concessions on Ukraine or preempt a negotiated settlement, it will also not prolong the fighting “just to inflict pain on Russia.” The point of arming Ukraine is so that it can fight is way into "the strongest possible position at the negotiating table.” Mr. Putin’s spokesmen expressed fury at the new U.S. arms shipments and the president’s words, a sure sign the Kremlin fears that the West is sticking together and that Ukraine will regain the initiative.