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Opinion Now is no time to go tentative on military aid for Ukraine

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Thursday. (Filip Singer/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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“If you start to take Vienna, take Vienna” — Napoleon, reportedly

A prolific maker of widows, orphans and history, Napoleon was a war savant who understood the perils of tentativeness. As U.S. and allied weapons — including information — are wielded by Ukraine against a Russia that aspires to be rampant in its region, the military and diplomatic dangers of hesitancy are mounting.

The annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, earns some of the derision it receives (“Where billionaires tell millionaires what the middle class is thinking”), but occasionally it puts a world leader in a useful spotlight, hence on the spot. On May 26, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told the forum: The world “experienced a thunderbolt” when Russia invaded Ukraine. This will “end Germany and Europe’s dependence on energy imports from Russia”: “We cannot allow Putin to win his war,” so we must “make it clear to Putin that there will be no victor’s peace.”

Another German, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, says Ukraine “must win” because it is “one of us.” She thereby supplied the answer to the foolish question of whether Ukraine — geographically, the largest nation located entirely in Europe — belongs in the European Union.

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Scholz’s thunderous words included: “We have an unequivocal message for our allies: You can rely on Germany!” And: “For the first time ever, Germany is supplying arms to a war zone — including heavy weapons.” Words are, however, unable to enable Ukraine to defeat Russia’s patent aim of piecemeal dismemberment of it. The Wall Street Journal reports that Germany has not sent tanks to Ukraine, has not yet sent to Poland and the Czech Republic the promised weapons to replace the tanks those nations (from Poland, more than 240 Soviet-designed T72s) have sent to Ukraine. Germany, the Journal reports, has “agreed to ship” seven heavy artillery pieces, but Europe’s largest economy has actually sent military aid worth just $215 million — less than Estonia’s contribution.

“We believe,” says Polish President Andrzej Duda, “that this is a war on civilization.” Who dissents?

All wars end, usually with negotiations. It is imperative that Ukraine start negotiating from a position of strength. Last week’s E.U. decision to embargo 90 percent of Russian oil imports by year’s end was especially heartening, given Europe’s low pain threshold. But the battlefield matters first and most in determining — and defining — victory.

In his 1951 speech to Congress after President Harry S. Truman relieved him of command in the Korean War, Gen. Douglas MacArthur proclaimed: “There is no substitute for victory.” Actually, there are gradations of victory, hence there were substitutes for victory as Americans — fresh from a world war concluded by unconditional surrenders — then understood it. In December 1952, what President-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower saw, hunched in a tiny plane flying over the Korean front, confirmed his intuition: Military victory would require effusions of blood disproportionate to any U.S. geopolitical gain — and beyond Americans’ tolerance.

The United States’ choice today is different. The country’s potential gains from sustaining Ukraine’s valorous expenditure of its blood are enormous. After visiting Kyiv, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on May 1 that the United States is “with Ukraine until victory is won.” Victory should have two elements.

One is that combat ends with Russia diminished — more militarily vulnerable, economically ramshackle and internationally disdained than it was when its aggression began. This has been achieved, but the achievement must be preserved by a second element:

Never mind war reparations; war-crime prosecutions; the return of Ukrainian territory previously annexed by Russia, such as Crimea; or even the end of Russian mischief in Ukrainian regions with large Russian-speaking populations. What matters in preventing Scholz’s “victor’s peace” is restoration of the (albeit untidy) geographic status quo of Feb. 24.

Putin wanted to restore his nation’s swagger. Russia now limps into a shrunken future as a moral pariah, its stumbling military in the shadow of an enlarged NATO. Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times reports U.S. estimates that Russia has lost about 1,000 tanks, that shortages of components have forced two tank manufacturers to halt production and that Russia’s semiconductor shortage is so severe they are “using computer chips from dishwashers and refrigerators in military equipment.” This is the time to increase Ukraine’s sting.

The United States’ adversaries in Afghanistan said: You have the wristwatches, but we have the time. Barbarians like Putin often believe that societies defined by brute stamina can prevail against societies that are more sophisticated than implacable. Ukraine’s supporters should avoid the temptation — the military folly — of tentativeness.