The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The West wants to save Ukraine from defeat. But what about victory?


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Last week at the NATO summit in Madrid, President Biden extolled the unity of the moment. Russian President Vladimir Putin “thought he could break the transatlantic alliance,” Biden told reporters, before pointing to how the Russian invasion of Ukraine had only galvanized the West and led to NATO’s imminent expansion with two new Nordic entrants.

“We are going to stick with Ukraine,” he added, “and all of the alliance is going to stick with Ukraine as long as it takes to, in fact, make sure that they are not defeated.”

That was a statement of intent and commitment to the government in Kyiv, one echoed by Biden’s European counterparts. Yet nestled within his remarks was an open question: The United States and its allies may be doing what they can to prevent Ukrainian defeat, but what about facilitating Ukrainian victory?

The Biden administration and its European allies have already poured billions of dollars worth of military aid into Ukraine. They have sourced Soviet-era munitions and equipment best suited for Ukrainian capabilities, flooded the nation with vital tactical arms like antitank Javelin missiles and fast-tracked Ukraine’s military modernization with top-of-the-line artillery and rocket launchers. They have also placed tremendous new pressures on the Russian economy through sanctions.

Europe rallies behind Ukraine. But fatigue is around the corner.

But some officials in Kyiv and Washington argue it’s far from enough. For months, the overriding message from Ukrainians and their Eastern European brethren has been simple: Give Ukraine weapons, and if in doubt, give Ukraine more weapons. They have lamented delays in deliveries and insisted the West could send greater volumes of materiel than is currently being dispatched.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday said he was relieved that Western artillery was finally “working very powerfully” for his country’s armed forces, and hitting key Russian weapons depots and fuel storage facilities with precision. But his country was still lacking sophisticated air-defense systems to protect Ukrainian cities from Russian missile strikes, he said. Those systems are taking longer to procure.

While Russia’s campaigns have exposed the rust and creakiness of the Kremlin’s war machine, Ukraine remains outmanned and outgunned on numerous fronts, especially in the south and east of the country where Russia is gobbling more territory. Russian forces are slowly, but steadily, expanding their grip over the eastern Donbas region, whose total control is one of the Kremlin’s stated war goals.

“They use artillery en masse and, unfortunately, they have a tenfold fire advantage,” Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, commander in chief of the Ukrainian armed forces, said of the Russians in a Telegram post last month. “Despite everything, we keep holding our positions. Every meter of Ukrainian land there is spilled with blood, not only ours but also the occupier’s.”

Rural rhythms upended by war on the road to Ukraine’s front lines

The Russian gains and the seeming intractable nature of the conflict have given U.S. onlookers cause for concern. While few in Washington’s foreign policy community want to push Kyiv to make concessions to Russia, they fear that the longer the war drags on, the more Ukraine may have to lose. Some hawkish Republican critics of Biden argue that doing just enough to prevent Ukrainian defeat may be tantamount to defeat.

“If you are just giving weapons to fight to a stalemate, that’s not a good situation and that has consequences,” Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho) told my colleague Josh Rogin. “We need to be in or out. And if we are in, we need to give them what they need to win.”

Needing to win implicitly means a profound humbling of Russia. Rather than preventing Ukrainian defeat, the U.S. goal, wrote Eliot Cohen of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, should be “to ensure Russia’s defeat — the thwarting of its aims to conquer yet more of Ukrainian territory, the smashing of its armed forces, and the doing of both in a convincing, public, and, yes, therefore humiliating way.”

By way of analogy, Cohen invoked the brutal logic of Al Capone-era mafia wars, an escalation of measures that fundamentally enfeebles Russia and dissuades it from retaliatory action.

Yet Putin is happy to trade in such rhetoric, too. “We are not rejecting peace talks but those who are should know that the further it goes, the harder it will be to reach agreement with us,” Putin said Thursday. As ever, he cast the ongoing fighting as a battle with NATO proxy forces. “We have heard many times that the West wants to fight us to the last Ukrainian,” he added. “This is a tragedy for the Ukrainian people, but it seems that everything is heading toward this.”

Some U.S. analysts believe that because Putin is engaged in his own game of brinkmanship over Ukraine — and because rolling back Russian advances may require considerably more Western investment — the United States and its NATO allies need to think about finding an off-ramp and forcing a settlement.

“The leadership in Kyiv and its Western backers must now face the sobering realities that diplomacy and a negotiated settlement may be the only way to prevent even more Ukrainian territory from falling to Russia,” wrote Daniel Davis, a retired U.S. Army colonel and frequent commentator on right-wing Fox News.

That sort of settlement is a non-starter for Kyiv — Ukrainian officials insist that the war is existential and their goal must be the full reclamation of lost territory, including even annexed Crimea. But in Washington, there are influential figures among the Republicans, let alone the less influential antiwar left, who argue that a protracted war in Ukraine is a distraction from American priorities at home and abroad — namely, the need to confront China.

Eleven Senate Republicans and fifty-seven House Republicans — comprising the bill’s entire opposition — voted against a $40 billion Ukraine aid package in May. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said at the time that such expenditure was “not in America’s interests” and allowed “Europe to freeload.”

Elbridge Colby, a former national security official in the Trump administration, has warned for months against the United States overextending itself in Ukraine, while sleeping on the potential threat China may pose to Taiwan. He lamented in a recent essay the zeal among those of his counterparts in Washington who buy into the narrative that the defense of Ukraine is the defense of an entire bulwark of civilizational and political values.

“Many in the foreign policy and political elite seem to view the Russo-Ukrainian War as an opportunity precisely to double down in Europe,” Colby wrote. “Even more, for some, it is a chance to try to turn the foreign policy clock back to the globe-spanning liberal imperialism of two decades ago. Washington must resist this temptation like the plague.”