Opinion How to break the stalemate in Ukraine

Smoke plumes rise from a fuel depot that was hit by the Russians in Odessa, Ukraine, on April 3, 2022. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
8 min

Nearly a year after Vladimir Putin unleashed carnage in Ukraine — a war triggered by Kyiv’s aspiration to be fully democratic, pluralistic, European and forever free of Moscow’s yoke — the West’s overarching goal must be ensuring that the Russian tyrant gains nothing by his aggression. To allow an outcome that rewards the Kremlin in any way would be a moral travesty. It would also deal a potentially lethal blow to the principle on which Western stability and civilized international conduct rests: that sovereign states cannot be invaded, subjugated and subjected to mass slaughter with impunity.

To thwart Russia and safeguard Ukraine’s sovereignty, the United States and its European allies have little choice but to intensify their military, economic and diplomatic support for Kyiv. That means equipping Ukrainian forces with more decisive weapons and in greater numbers, imposing more aggressive sanctions on Moscow and galvanizing a more muscular international coalition to isolate and ostracize Russia.

That agenda is urgent; the status quo of relatively static battle lines is untenable. As Russia mobilizes hundreds of thousands of recruits in support of a massive new offensive and shifts its economy to an all-out wartime footing, the West’s piecemeal, reactive, only-what’s-essential-to-avoid-disaster approach has become a prescription for stalemate.

Putin is hoping for exactly such a stalemate, which he regards as a way to wear down Western resolve and popular support for Ukraine. What’s needed is a game-changing shift in momentum, of which Ukrainian forces have shown themselves capable — if they have the resources. “It’s very clear to us that we don’t have any other alternatives,” Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, told us. “We will fight.”

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Opinions on the war in Ukraine after one year
One year ago, Russia invaded Ukraine. Post Opinions is marking the anniversary with columns looking at all that has transpired and what may lie ahead.
Post Opinions partnered with the Brookings Institution to visualize the war’s effects on Ukraine’s economy, immigration trends and more. Together, these indicators suggest the fighting is unlikely to end anytime soon, write Michael O’Hanlon, Constanze Stelzenmüller and David Wessel of Brookings.
The Editorial Board looked for solutions, calling on the United States and its European allies to intensify their military, economic and diplomatic support for Kyiv. Vladimir Putin hopes for a stalemate, the Editorial Board writes, and the West needs to fuel a game-changing shift in momentum.
In an op-ed adapted from her Feb. 9 speech at the “Rebuilding Ukraine, Rebuilding the World” conference at Harvard, Oleksandra Matviichuk writes that it is not only wrong but also immoral not to provide weapons for Ukraine.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling describes the Ukraine war as a slugfest, not a stalemate. He outlines five phases of the war and predicts that Ukraine’s forces will ultimately prevail.
Columnist Jason Willick looks at the war through the lens of U.S. politics. President Biden, he says, is positioned to take advantage of divided government by using as his foil Republicans who oppose continued support for Ukraine.
Antony Beevor, a former tank commander with the British Army, says the Ukraine war has revived the role of the main battle tank.
Columnist David Ignatius examines three main characters of the war: Vladimir Putin, Volodymyr Zelensky and Joe Biden. A year into the war, Ignatius writes, Putin’s staying power begins to seem questionable, while Zelensky and Biden have never looked stronger.
Columnist George F. Will discusses the importance of continued support for Ukraine, writing that Putin can win only if Ukraine’s allies neglect to maximize their moral and material advantages.
Graham Allison, a professor of government at Harvard, reconsiders what it would mean to win in Ukraine. A new Cold War, he writes, might not be the worst outcome.


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The top priority is weaponry. President Biden and his European counterparts dawdled this winter in deciding to equip Ukraine with top-grade Western battle tanks, including German-made Leopards. They were finally approved, but it will take weeks more before they reach the front line and, so far, only Germany and Poland have cleared the way for substantial numbers to be sent. It would be folly to repeat the same foot-dragging blunder with other arms the Ukrainians need.

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Those include more U.S.-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket System launchers, known as HIMARS, precision weapons that the Ukrainians have used to good effect against Russian command posts and ammunition depots behind the front lines. The Biden administration has supplied at least 20 of them; Kyiv needs more. It also needs longer-range missiles such as the MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System, whose range is about 190 miles; they could hit Russian targets in Ukraine now out of reach, including in Crimea.

Kyiv will need greater numbers of almost every type of weaponry — artillery shells, which it is firing at a rate of nearly 100,000 per month; fighting vehicles; advanced drones; and, especially, high-tech air defense systems. The United States and its allies, especially Germany, should accelerate their production and supply of air defense systems to blunt Russia’s systematic campaign to pulverize Ukrainian power stations and degrade critical infrastructure.

Kyiv will also need advanced Western fighter jets. Providing that air capability has been ruled out for now by Mr. Biden, in the case of U.S.-made F-16s. He should reconsider on the condition that Kyiv commits that the jets will be used to defend Ukraine on its own territory, not for attacks inside Russia. Sooner or later, the West will need to provide Ukraine with weapons systems that not only help to end the war but also dissuade Russia from launching new ones. The most effective deterrent will be a convincing array of military muscle on the ground and in the skies — as well as, eventually, NATO membership and the security guarantee it provides.

See more charts on the war in Ukraine

The main purpose of beefing up Ukraine’s arsenal is not to kill more Russian soldiers. Mr. Putin is doing that himself by sending waves of poorly trained troops as cannon fodder to the front lines. Rather, the aim should be to convince Russia’s dictator of the futility of his military escalation by demonstrating that the West — richer, stronger, more technologically advanced — will not scrimp on the hardware needed to repel his attacks. Only when the Kremlin grasps that victory is impossible — that it cannot hold sovereign Ukrainian territory seized illegally — will negotiations be possible.

Russia’s economy has proved more resilient than most Western officials assumed when they imposed an unprecedented range of sanctions after Putin launched his full-scale invasion. Russian GDP contracted much less than expected last year and is projected to grow, slightly, this year. That should be a signal to Mr. Biden and European leaders to undertake a more thorough crackdown.

One place to start is with more than $300 billion in Russian central bank reserves, currently frozen in Western and Japanese banks. Those funds should be seized by the Group of Seven or some other Western entity, which could establish an agency to use them as a down payment for the eventual reconstruction of Ukrainian power plants, apartment buildings, train stations, hospitals and other structures damaged and destroyed in the course of the war.

The bill for Ukraine’s reconstruction is likely to be two or three times more than Russia’s frozen reserves, at least. Every dollar Moscow is compelled to pay to rebuild Ukraine is one less from the wallets of Americans, Europeans and Ukrainians themselves. The legal mechanism for seizing the Russian funds remains to be determined, and the process for doing so would be complex and take years. But there is precedent for seizing central bank funds; Iraq was compelled to pay more than $50 billion in restitution in the decades after its invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

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Washington and its allies have other levers at their disposal to squeeze Putin’s regime and its enablers and supporters. Western companies that have not yet severed ties with Russia can be pressed to do so. The price ceiling on Russian oil exports, set at $60 a barrel by the G-7 last year, could be lowered further, slowing the flow of revenue that undergirds Putin’s war machine. The European Council should also take up the question of banning imports of Russian gas, both to deprive Moscow of an easy source of revenue and a means of political leverage.

Western public opinion has so far remained relatively solid behind Ukraine’s plight, despite signs of slippage in some countries. In a January poll by Gallup, nearly two-thirds of Americans supported Ukraine’s effort to regain its territory taken by Russian aggression. That’s roughly the same proportion that held that position last summer, although Republican backing for the war is wobbly. As costs mount to sustain Ukraine’s survival, Kyiv’s successes on the battlefield would help buttress public opinion in the United States and Europe.

Mr. Biden and allied leaders will also be crucial in stiffening Western resolve by reminding their electorates that the bloodletting in Ukraine is a war of aggression led by a dictator deluded by dreams of imperial revival. They need to drive home the point that the inevitable result of a Russian victory would be a far more dangerous world — and an invitation to further aggression by Moscow. The targets of that aggression would likely be other nearby states, including NATO members whose security rests on the assumption that U.S. and European troops will ride to the rescue.

By maintaining and strengthening Western unity in the face of the biggest war in Europe in three-quarters of a century and a potentially catastrophic energy cutoff by Moscow, Mr. Biden has helped achieve what many would have said was impossible a year ago. He has taken a cautious and calibrated approach, arming Ukraine incrementally for fear of the risk of escalation.

Submit your questions on Russia's war in Ukraine for David Ignatius's Feb. 22 reader Q&A

But a principal lesson from the past year is that the risk of escalation is overblown. Ukraine is in a defensive war to recapture its own territory. As for the Russian autocrat, he has nothing left to escalate with other than manpower and nuclear weapons. If the West adequately arms Ukraine, he cannot win with the former and is very unlikely to resort to the latter, which would alienate his most important ally, China. A tactical nuclear strike by Russia would be one of history’s greatest acts of strategic self-immolation, cementing Russia’s pariah status for decades.

This is a pivotal moment in 21st-century history and a critical juncture for U.S. interests, leadership and prestige. The crucial objective should be fortifying Ukraine so that Russia’s unwarranted war is understood by dictators as a cautionary tale — and not as a template for remaking the world to their liking.

The Post’s View | About the Editorial Board

Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).