Last week, in advance of the anniversary of Russia’s horrific invasion of Ukraine, as Russian forces appear fitfully to be launching a new offensive, President Biden for the first time visited Ukraine, walking with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky through Kyiv. Following on his pledge in his State of the Union address to support Ukraine for “as long as it takes,” Biden’s visit was a dramatic signal of resolve—but it hasn’t finally resolved the tensions and contradictions within his administration.
Just days after Biden made his pledge before both chambers of Congress, the American people, and the world, an anonymous administration official told the Washington Post that “‘as long as it takes’ pertains to the amount of conflict,” not “to the amount of assistance,” and that “we will continue to try to impress upon them that we can’t do anything and everything forever.” A few days after that, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff mused that the final result of the war will be a negotiated settlement between Russian and Ukraine. The only clear statement of America’s goals in helping Ukraine came in April, when Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters that “we want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.” The White House reportedly rebuked Austin for stating the goal so plainly. Most importantly, the administration’s actions reflect the ambivalence of its rhetoric, vacillating about what weapons systems the Ukrainians need, what are capable of using, what would be escalatory, and so on.
The support that the United States has provided in the last year has often come as the result of both public pressure, buttressed by the realization by those within and outside government that the Ukrainians are more militarily capable than previously thought, and that the will of the Ukrainian people is indomitable.
While the Biden administration and Congress have continued to support Ukraine, the Biden administration has declined to engage the public—both experts and average voters—about what it will take for Ukraine to win the war and to maintain the post-war peace. There are good reasons for sensitive conversations about strategy to happen in private—especially when coordination with 30 NATO allies and Ukraine is involved. In this case, the administration’s excessive secrecy is preventing domestic and international buy-in for its strategy—and even raising questions about whether it has one at all.
Within the past month, there have been countless public roundtables and private discussions about how to make 2023 “the year Ukraine wins.” In these forums, a lot of the same ideas get bounced around: provide more and heavier weapons, increase sanctions on Moscow, reiterate that NATO is committed for the duration of the war. If 2023 is to truly to the year that Ukraine decisively defeats Russia on the battlefield and reestablishes sovereignty over its territory, decisions need to be taken now by the U.S. and its partners to facilitate that victory.
As often is the case in the Pentagon or in corporate boardrooms, identifying objectives is a key part of making a strategy. That requires asking, “What does success look like?” Only then can planning start for how to achieve the chosen goals. Backwards planning and metrics setting are useful tools to match means to ends—i.e., make a strategy.
Here are five things that the administration could do to meet its minimum stated goal: the continued existence of Ukraine as an independent state. These measures would also be helpful if the administration wanted to pursue a more ambitious goal: helping Ukraine retake every inch of its sovereign territory within its internationally recognized borders so that it can survive as an economically viable country, and/or degrading Russian military power to the point that it can’t threaten any of its other neighbors. Each of these actions would require both coordination with European and other allies and buy-in from the American people. They will require courage and tenacity to execute, and identifying what overall goal they are contributing to will necessitate some soul searching, if not from Biden himself then from his willful staffers and subordinates.
Nothing on this list is impossible; it just takes leadership.
1. Commit to a robust troop presence on the Eastern Flank for an indefinite period once the fighting ends. The United States currently has approximately 120,000 troops stationed or on rotation in Europe. These are the highest levels in more than a decade, though fewer than were stationed in Germany at the end of the Cold War. The presence of U.S. troops in Europe, and particularly on the territory of NATO’s easternmost members, sends a message of reassurance to America’s partners and one of deterrence to Russia and Belarus. The United States should maintain high-readiness battalions with the necessary enablers ready to go at a moment’s notice out of Germany, Italy, Poland, the Baltics, and Romania—provided that the nations of Western Europe, especially Germany, France, Italy, and Spain, match the U.S. force contribution on the Eastern Flank (which, really, should be called its Eastern Front).
2. Provide even more heavy weapons to Ukraine. The administration has already implicitly admitted the error that its initial refusal to provide Ukraine with armored vehicles, tanks, and long-range rockets that it has since delivered or promised. It shouldn’t repeat the same mistake, and should provide Ukraine ATACMS, coastal defense weapons, and better targeting capabilities at a minimum. More Patriot air-defense systems are required to provide better air and missile defense. If the U.S. cannot provide advanced attack helicopters, than it should work with allies to have them provide theirs. These moves are inconsistent with playing for a tie, but important to help Ukraine regain control of its sovereignty and territory in full.
3. Put U.S. trainers in Ukraine. A related corollary to providing heavier weaponry and platforms to Kyiv is to make the bold decision to put U.S. trainers on the ground. This would be necessary to expedite training on the more technologically intense systems and to demonstrate American resolve and support. Some would call this escalation, but is it? Do we really believe Moscow would deliberately target U.S. trainers knowing that this would widen the war and formally bring the U.S. and NATO into it? No decision is without risk, but the optics of having U.S. and, hopefully, allied trainers on the ground providing weapons training would strengthen the Ukrainian military and be a symbol of solidarity with the Ukrainian people.
The United States has not yet presented Putin with a critical choice. Our practice so far of slowly ramping up support has forced him to respond slowly, a bit at a time. By putting American trainers in Ukraine, we could force him to face an urgent decision of escalation or backing down. As Putin’s history and a series of threats he has made in the past year have demonstrated, he has a tendency to back down. By forcing him to make decisions quickly, the pro-Ukraine coalition could exploit one of his greatest weaknesses. Inviting Ukraine to join NATO could have the same effect.
4. Spend every dollar of appropriated security assistance to backfill allies. Many of America’s allies, in Europe and around the world, have generously donated from their own military stocks to help Ukraine. Congress has appropriated billions of dollars to help those allies restock their militaries (in many cases, by replacing Soviet-made equipment with newer, American systems, which would also signal to Moscow that NATO’s easternmost members pack a high-tech punch and should not be tested). Yet, in my conversations with allied governments, none are clear about when those funds will be delivered. That needs to change. America’s allies are looking for the most advanced weapons and platforms the United States has to offer. Fully restocking the allies would reinforce we, too, are a nation that values partners stepping up to share burdens, and that we want to ensure NATO has the best interoperable equipment available. We would also strengthen our own defense industrial base, which the war in Ukraine has shown to be in serious need of recapitalization and expansion not only to support Ukraine, but to deter other potential adversaries.
5. Commit $100 billion of reconstruction assistance to Ukraine. No one knows what the final tally will be to reconstruct and rebuild Ukraine. One estimate in the fall put the number at $349 billion more recent estimates range as high as $750 billion, and it’s not hard to imagine the cost surpassing $1 trillion if the war goes on for another year. This is a huge sum of money. The international community is going to have to come together to assist Ukraine. To date, the administration and Congress have remained mum about any American commitment to rebuild Ukraine. As has been demonstrated time and again in the past year, international cooperation requires American leadership. While $100 billion is an arbitrary number, it will get attention from foreign government and companies, especially in the financial sector. The United States can do this, must do this, and must do it in 2023 so that it does not become a political issue in 2024.
Taken together, these decisions could make 2023 the year of Ukraine’s victory. All of these will require internal discussions as well as public debates. These conversations need to take place now, and the decisions need to come soon thereafter. This list of policies is not exhaustive—there are other ways to help Ukraine, impose costs on Russia, reassure our allies, and defend the principles of sovereignty and non-aggression. Nor is it possible to say for sure that all of these policies are necessary—thought it’s safer for Ukraine’s victory to be overdetermined than to risk failure.
There is a corresponding list of actions European countries and the European Union can take, starting with increased lethal aid to Ukraine and military exercises in the Baltic and Black Sea areas. Overcoming the cleavages between Western and Eastern Europe, as well as Southern and Northern Europe, will require American leadership. The countries on Russia’s (or Belarus’s) borders understand what’s at stake in Ukraine more than any other European nations. They look to Washington for leadership and support. America enables its partners to do bold things when it, too, acknowledges shared risk and possible sacrifice.
An item that has received little attention since it was announced at last year’s NATO summit in Madrid is the alliance’s initiative, known as the Comprehensive Assistance Package, for short, medium, and long-term support to Ukraine. It is meant to help Ukraine with its immediate and long-term military capacity and institution building. However, allies have been concerned about defining anything beyond the “short term” (which has only included non-lethal assistance) because it is not clear how the war will end and what Ukraine will need. This is cowardice. Defining now what the United States, NATO, and its member states will do to ensure Ukraine remains a viable state with its own self-defense capabilities supported by the transatlantic community is exactly the right message and set of actions to take now—not once the fighting is done.
Now is also the time for the administration and Congress to start debating and discussing Ukraine’s future accession to NATO, which will require leadership from Washington and for which the urgency may dissipate when the fighting ends.
The actions enumerated above would have two results. The first and most important would be to enable the war to end more quickly, saving the lives of Ukrainians—both under arms and civilians—and Russians. The most humanitarian resolution to the war is the quickest possible victory for the non-genocidal side. The secondary effects of these actions would be to demonstrate visible support to Ukraine in a time of increasing need. Psychology matters in war, and these policies would demonstrate that the United States is able to rally and maintain NATO unity—and send a clear signal to Russia that it cannot and will not prevail in its quest to destabilize and occupy Ukraine.
The world is a small place. The signals we send to our allies in Europe will also be heard by our allies elsewhere, especially in East Asia. The posture we take with respect to Ukraine will be noticed by other adversaries.
We can ensure Ukraine wins, but our leaders need to have the hard discussions, in public, and show political courage in getting to the right answer. The alternative to making the relatively easy choices now is making some very painful ones later.
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