By DEBRA CAGAN, JOHN HERBST AND ALEXANDER VERSHBOW
Nearly 20 of our fellow experts and national security professionals — whose digital signatures appear at the end of this op-ed — agree: The war in Ukraine has reached a decisive moment and that vital U.S. interests are at stake.
Long before the Kremlin first invaded Ukraine in 2014, we have — from senior positions in the U.S. government and military — followed Moscow’s foreign policy and the grave dangers it presents to the United States and our allies. We have carefully watched Moscow’s major offensive since February and the response of the Biden administration and its allies and partners. We have maintained close touch with Ukrainian, U.S. and European officials. Two of us just returned from meetings with Ukraine’s defense and military leaders.
Although the Biden administration has successfully rallied U.S. allies and provided substantial military assistance, including this month, to Ukraine’s valiant armed forces, it has failed to produce a satisfactory strategic narrative which enables governments to maintain public support for the NATO engagement over the long term.
By providing aid sufficient to produce a stalemate, but not enough to roll back Russian territorial gains, the Biden administration may be unintentionally seizing defeat from the jaws of victory. Out of an over-abundance of caution about provoking Russian escalation (conventional as well as nuclear), we are in effect ceding the initiative to Russian President Vladimir Putin and reducing the pressure on Moscow to halt its aggression and get serious about negotiations.
Moscow’s imperialist war against the people of Ukraine is not just a moral outrage — a campaign of genocide aimed at erasing the Ukrainian nation from the map — but a clear danger to U.S. security and prosperity.
American principles and interests demand the strongest possible response, one sufficient to force the Russians as much as possible back to pre-February lines and to impose costs heavy enough to deter Russia from invading a third time. With Russian forces struggling to regroup in the east and stave off Ukrainian efforts to retake Kherson in the south, now is the time for Ukraine’s allies to pull out all the stops by providing Ukraine the means it needs to prevail. Dragging out the conflict through so-called strategic pauses will do nothing but allow Putin to regroup, recover and inflict more damage in Ukraine and beyond.
But so far, neither the administration nor European allies have succeeded in making clear why this is important to the United States and the West. It is important because Putin is pursuing a revisionist foreign policy designed to upend the rules-based security system that has ensured American and global stability and enabled prosperity since the end of World War II. Putin’s
aggressive designs do not end in Ukraine. As Russian officials have repeatedly made clear, if Russia wins in Ukraine, our Baltic NATO allies are at risk, as are other allies residing in the neighborhood.
Prudent policy today identifies tomorrow’s risk and seeks the right place and time to deal with that risk. For the U.S. and NATO, that time is now — and the place is Ukraine, a large country whose population understands that its choice is either defeating Putin or losing their independence and even their existence as a distinct, Western-oriented nation.
With the necessary weapons and economic aid, Ukraine can defeat Russia.
If it succeeds, our soldiers are less likely to have to risk their lives protecting U.S. treaty allies whom Russia also threatens.
What does defeat for Putin look like? The survival of Ukraine as a secure, independent, and economically viable country. That means a Ukraine with defensible borders that include Odesa and a substantial portion of the Black Sea coast, as well as a strong, well-armed military and a real end to hostilities. That should ideally include the return to Ukrainian control of all territories seized since Feb. 24 and, ultimately, the lands stolen in 2014, including Crimea. Such a peace is only possible when Putin realizes he is soundly defeated and can no longer achieve his objectives of dominating Ukraine or any other nation by force.
It would be a defeat for Ukraine (and the United States) if in haste to end the fighting, the West encouraged Ukraine to cede territory in return for a ceasefire. That would continue the pattern since at least Moscow’s aggression against Georgia in 2008 in which the West pushes for a ceasefire that effectively ratifies past Kremlin aggression and does not actually force it to stop shooting or taking more territory. (More than 10,000 Ukrainians died after the Minsk agreement ceasefires with scores and even hundreds of Russian violations daily.) A ceasefire would not end Russia’s aggression or its occupation of Ukrainian land; it would simply give Moscow a pause to consolidate its gains and then resume its offensive. Moreover, the vast majority of Ukrainians in recent surveys oppose any territorial concessions in exchange for a ceasefire with Moscow.
Such a plan would also condemn millions of Ukrainians to live under a regime that has committed numerous war crimes, whose senior officials and media have called for de-Ukrainianization of Ukraine, which is already being subjected to forced Russification, including the illegal and involuntary deportation of nearly 400,000 Ukrainian children to Russia for adoption. These measures have prompted a growing number of scholars to describe Russian policy as genocide.
Moscow’s plan now is to make as many gains on the battlefield as possible; to conduct sham referendums in the newly occupied Ukrainian territory as a prelude to their annexation; to undermine unity in the West’s support for Ukraine by cutting off gas supplies going into the winter; and to blockade Ukrainian ports to produce destabilizing food shortages in the Global South designed to blow back on the West. For all of these purposes, Moscow needs time. Which means the United States and its allies must keep the pressure on Moscow.
The Biden administration should move more quickly and strategically, in meeting Ukrainian requests for weapons systems. And when it decides to send more advanced weapons, like HIMARS artillery, it should send them in larger quantities that maximize their impact on the battlefield.
Ukraine needs long-range fires to disrupt the Russian offensive, including Russian resupply, fuel, and ammunition stocks. That means the U.S. should send ATACMS munitions, fired by HIMARS with the 300km range necessary to strike Russian military targets anywhere in Ukraine, including occupied Crimea. And Ukraine needs constant resupply of ammunition and spare parts for artillery platforms supplied from various countries, some of which are not interchangeable. These systems are constantly in use, which makes maintenance and spare parts resupply critical. How and where these tasks are accomplished and the logistics infrastructure to quickly get the equipment back where it can be of greatest use can also make a huge difference.
Beyond this, Ukraine needs more short- and medium-range air defense to counter Russian air and missile attacks. An increasing problem is the need to deploy adequate countermeasures to hamper the growing prevalence of Russian-produced drones and new ones it is trying to procure from Iran.
The administration has been reluctant thus far to take such decisive steps for fear of provoking Russia, or as National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan recently said at the Aspen Security Forum, “to avoid World War Three.” Putin and other senior Russian officials have at numerous points in the run-up to and following Moscow’s Feb. 24 offensive reminded the West of the dangers of nuclear war. But the U.S. is also a nuclear power, and it is a strategic mistake to suggest that nuclear deterrence no longer works. Nuclear deterrence still works.
It is to Putin’s advantage to threaten nuclear war, but not to initiate it. And we have seen the Kremlin make nuclear threats that proved hollow — for instance in connection with Finland and Sweden joining NATO. If we allow Putin to intimidate us from providing the weapons Ukraine needs to stop Russian revisionism, what happens when he waves his nuclear wand over the Baltic states? And why would the administration assume that Putin would not dare do that with Estonia or Poland if the tactic worked for him in Ukraine?
The stakes are clear for us, our allies, and Ukraine. We should not fool ourselves. We may think that each day we delay providing Ukraine the weapons it needs to win, we are avoiding a confrontation with the Kremlin. To the contrary, we are merely increasing the probability that we will face that danger on less favorable grounds. The smart and prudent move is to stop Putin’s aggressive designs in Ukraine, and to do so now, when it will make a difference.
General Philip Breedlove, USAF (ret.); 17th Supreme Allied Commander Europe and distinguished professor, Sam Nunn School, Georgia Institute of Technology
Debra Cagan, former State and Defense Department official;distinguished energy fellow, Transatlantic Leadership Network
General (Ret.) Wesley K. Clark, 12th Supreme Allied Commander Europe; senior fellow, UCLA Burkle Center
Ambassador Paula J. Dobriansky, former under secretary of state for global affairs
Ambassador Eric Edelman, former ambassador to Finland and Turkey;former under secretary of defense for policy
Dr. Evelyn Farkas, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia; executive director, McCain Institute
Ambassador Daniel Fried, former assistant secretary of state for Europe;Weiser Family distinguished fellow, Atlantic Council
Ambassador John Herbst, former Ambassador to Ukraine and Uzbekistan; senior director, Eurasia Center, Atlantic Council
Lieutenant General (Ret.) Ben Hodges, former commanding general, US Army Europe
Ambassador John Kornblum, former ambassador to Germany
David Kramer, former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor
Jan Lodal, former principal deputy under secretary of defense for policy; distinguished fellow, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, Atlantic Council
Robert McConnell, former assistant attorney general; co-founder, US-Ukraine Foundation
Ambassador Stephen Sestanovich, former ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet Union; senior fellow, Council on Foreign Relations;professor, Columbia University
John Sipher, former officer and chief of station, CIA Clandestine Service; nonresident senior fellow, Eurasia Center, Atlantic Council
Ambassador William Taylor, former ambassador to Ukraine
Ambassador Alexander Vershbow, former NATO deputy secretary general; former assistant secretary of defense; former ambassador to Russia and NATO
Ambassador Kurt Volker, former ambassador to NATO; former special representative for Ukraine negotiations; distinguished fellow, Center for European Policy Analysis
Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, former ambassador to Ukraine