The relative trickle of advanced weapons to Kyiv suggests Western leaders would be fine with a stalemate.
May 11, 2022
The world was given an ominous warning on Tuesday when U.S. intelligence leaders told Congress that the Russia-Ukraine conflict was entering a “stalemate.”
The last time we heard U.S. officials use that word was to describe the war in Afghanistan. The United States didn’t win that war, and it looks like Ukraine isn’t going to win this one—at least, not with the weapons the world is allowing them to have.
It is true that Ukraine has stymied Russia’s attacks from the north, that shelling has ceased in Kharkiv for the first time since the war began, and that even the consolidated effort to seize the Donbas is proceeding slowly. But take those little victories with caution: Russia still has the ability to send in many more waves of troops and ground power, as long as the Kremlin and the generals desire.
Ukrainians are fighting to win, but it’s clear the world will give them only enough weapons to hold the line—a line largely dictated by the Kremlin’s will—and hope for a negotiated peace with accused war criminal Vladimir Putin. If the United States and its allies want a total victory for Ukraine, they will have to give much more. Otherwise it increasingly looks like Ukraine will have to sacrifice the Donbas region. And if that’s the case, why keep fighting at all?
Ben Wallace, the UK’s Secretary of State for Defence, is visiting Washington this week after delivering a poignant and bruising speech Monday on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, reflecting on the morality of warfare; damning Russian military leaders for sending ill-trained, ill-equipped, and immoral conscripts to their deaths in Ukraine; and condemning “the ordinary soldier” for continuing to partake in it.
“We all wish this senseless war did not need to be fought but—like the vast majority of the world—we cannot stand by without giving the Ukrainians the means to defend themselves,” he said in his speech, promising that Russian generals are ensured “only dishonor and surely defeat in Ukraine.”
On Tuesday, however, Wallace told a small group of reporters that the West’s goal is rather more limited: “The key has to be that we—and it’s why we are there—is to help Ukraine negotiate from a position of strength, not weakness. And I think that’s the most important thing. What they do with that choice is actually up to Ukraine.”
But merely helping Ukrainians to negotiate from a position of strength is a lot different from helping them defeat Russia.
Wallace is hardly the only Western leader to talk this way. Nobody is offering the arsenal or assistance Ukraine would need for actual victory; indeed, and nobody is even entertaining the idea. On Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron even warned against humiliating Putin because, he said, the conflict ultimately must be negotiated by Russia and Ukraine.
I don’t know how Japan’s Mamoru Shigemitsu felt when he surrendered on the battleship Missouri in a rather ridiculous tophat and tails. Maybe Macron and the West can avoid humiliating Putin by letting him ride shirtless on a bear to the final signing table. But whatever “position of strength” Ukraine occupies will likely be up to Putin. And nobody seems to be considering that the Russian leader may never want to negotiate, or need to, as long as he’s alive. Only Putin knows if he will drive again on Kyiv or settle for the Donbas.
Surely more Russian missiles will fall until then. And Ukrainians and Russians will die.
The question is how long is the West willing to let the conflict continue on Putin’s timeline or begin to drive their own with less fear of existential retribution. In recent weeks, the United States has led allies in giving weapons and military assistance to Ukraine that are more powerful, more advanced, and more closely flirting with the blurry redline that might put Western powers in direct conflict with Russia. While over time Western leaders have become more willing to risk sending Ukraine more powerful weapons, there is still caution to cross the imaginary red line that might spark a wider war involving Europe or the world, or tempt Putin to use his nuclear weapons. Wallace said the UK’s goal remains to keep the conflict within Ukraine.
Howitzers? They might help Ukraine delay or even turn back a Russian advance, but they will not push the Russian military back to Russia.
“It depends how it’s used,” Wallace said, of the military aid given to Ukraine. “As you go up (in capability), the training impact matters.” British shoulder-fired anti-tank NLAWS complemented the Javelin very well, he said. “But that was almost a resistance-level weapon,” he said, that worked well for the Ukrainians’ initial defense. As you start inserting more advanced weapons, whether multiple launch rocket systems, or MLRS, or longer-range artillery, he said, “how you deploy that can be battle-winning. If you coordinate it properly, target it properly, all-arms integration, you can make a real difference.”
The more sophisticated the weapon, the more time it takes to train Ukrainians to use it, however. “The challenge is how we help them do that, if they wish to change to do more counter-attacks at a larger scale,” on Russian forces in the east.
Wallace said the UK has been careful so far to give Ukraine weapons that are calibrated to the threat coming at them. In other words, just enough to maintain a stalemate. Many war watchers in Washington have said that’s the problem, and called for a stronger and more direct U.S. military involvement in the war that would push Russia out of Ukraine and even cause damage to enemy positions inside of Russia, dismissing fears of provoking Russia into a possibly-nuclear war with Europe. Wallace appeared to understand the desire.
“Lethal aid is something they totally understand, because if the shoe was on the other foot they’d be doing exactly the same thing. So, what we definitely see is they’re not as agitated by lethal aid as you would think.”
It’s not Russia’s combat power that seemed to most disturb the British defense leader; it’s the “dereliction of generalship” Russia’s leaders have displayed with such little regard to their own forces and what that could mean if the West helped Ukraine counter-escalate.
“I mean, what we are seeing in [Russian] units is units that have been reduced by 25, 35 percent. The battlegroups, if they are brought back in, they’re augmented with cannon fodder. People not trained, not prepared,” Wallace said.
“They’re making lots of mistakes, but their response is more barrage, more brutality, and more cannon fodder,” Wallace said. Russians are in the Donbas, but they’re taking “small hamlets” and still getting pushed around. “So, you know, given this was supposed to be the great repositioning–so far, not so good. But let’s not forget this is a vast Russian country with the ability to mobilize huge amounts of people, and if your battle-winning components, you don’t really care how well trained they are and you just keep on shoving them and keep running ,you know, firing as much ammunition as possible. You could seek to overwhelm” Ukraine.
Nobody knows how this war ends, but everyone seems to say the only man who does is Putin. If that’s so, allies should continue to give Ukraine defensive arms to take the beating Russia is giving. But if allies want Ukraine to be better positioned for a future peace table, then they also should be more willing to give Ukraine weapons that help them do more than hunker down and hold the line. And if allied leaders believe there’s room beneath the nuclear risk to send forward even better arms or capabilities that give Ukraine that much more of an advantage one minute sooner, they should.