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Opinion NATO is united on Ukraine. Good, but plenty could still go wrong.

President Biden, second from right, meets with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, second from left, during the NATO summit in Madrid on June 29. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
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Brussels — NATO solidarity was on display at a summit meeting this week in Madrid. One after another, officials pledged to stay the course and combat Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

But as this war bleeds into summer and civilians continue to perish in horrific rocket attacks, NATO needs to ask how its strategy might fail. We can imagine some of the ways in which a hypothetical “Red Team” analysis might reveal how Ukraine’s allies could squander their current advantages and lose this conflict.

When you look at the scorecard so far, Putin appears to be failing in his war aims. Russian troops are bogged down in a bloody battle of attrition. Ukraine, rather than bowing to Moscow’s hegemony, is joining Europe with candidate status to the European Union. A revitalized NATO is bolstering its eastern and northern flanks, with Sweden and Finland joining the alliance. And Russia is on the way to losing its energy markets in Europe and its access to Western technology.

The West is “sending an unmistakable message” to Putin, President Biden asserted in Madrid on Wednesday. The Pentagon plans to send an Army corps headquarters to Poland; more U.S. troops to the Baltic states and Romania; two more Navy destroyers to Spain; and two more squadrons of F-35 fighters to Britain. “We’re stepping up,” Biden said in announcing the expanded U.S. commitment.

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What could go wrong with this picture? Plenty, the Red Team would argue.

The biggest challenge is the battlefield itself. U.S. and British intelligence analysts are forecasting a slow, static campaign in the Donbas region, with the Ukrainians able to contain Russian breakouts with newly arriving multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS), additional artillery ammunition and more ground-to-air missiles.

But what if the weapons pipeline is slow or inadequate? The Pentagon has been limiting its deliveries of the MLRS — wanting a “proof of concept” — and has provided only a fraction of what the Ukrainians say they need. Deliveries of some other weapons have been slow, too, sources say — with far fewer on the battlefield than the Ukrainians want.

An example is the small but lethal Switchblade drone, which can attack Russian tanks, ships or command centers. The drone comes in two models, with flight time ranges of 15 to 40 minutes. Back in March, the Biden administration announced plans to send Ukraine the first of what would be 400 of the smaller drones, according to a source familiar with the weapons system. But the source said the Pentagon sent just 10 of the larger models. The Ukrainians have requested several thousand more of each version, but there has been no U.S. response, according to this source. The drones are made by AeroVironment.

Political fatigue is another problem for the United States and its NATO allies. The war in Ukraine is relatively popular now, but complaints will surely grow as U.S. gasoline prices remain high, natural gas supplies dwindle in Europe during a cold winter and voters ask why money isn’t being spent on domestic needs.

At a conference here this week linked to the NATO summit, sponsored by the German Marshall Fund (of which I’m a trustee), I heard calls for victory in Ukraine from attendees from Germany, Poland, Latvia, Romania, Greece, Spain, Britain and the United States. They all argued that the fight is worth the sacrifices. But many also worried that it lacked sufficient political support at home.

The leaders of the Group of Seven discussed two of the trickiest problems at their summit in Elmau, Germany, this week — lowering energy prices and easing food shortages caused by the Russian blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, from which it exports grain. The G-7 leaders have ideas, but few specific plans. These problems can’t wait; the costs could become unbearable for the West.

One way to lose wars is through unwise provocations. Lithuania’s recent decision to block transit to the neighboring Russian enclave of Kaliningrad was meant to enforce E.U. sanctions, but was it sensible? Several European and U.S. officials told me they were dubious, since the move could provoke a Russian counterattack and then a Lithuanian invocation of NATO’s Article 5 mutual-defense pact.

NATO is right to avoid direct attacks on Russia that might lead to catastrophic nuclear escalation. But that doesn’t mean Ukraine shouldn’t fight back against missiles fired from inside Russia. If Putin uses his territory as a sanctuary for launching rockets in an unprovoked, illegal war, the protection of his border dissolves.

If Ukraine can stop Russia on the battlefield, it will have to decide eventually what kind of settlement it wants — since an unconditional surrender by a nuclear-armed Russia is unlikely. But that diplomatic moment is probably a long way off.

This is Ukraine’s war to fight. But NATO needs to plan its strategy as if the alliance’s own credibility and survival were at stake.

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