September 26, 2022
By Kurt Volker
Thanks to the courage and determination of the Ukrainian people, the country’s future as a sovereign, independent, European democracy is assured. Enormous challenges remain, but Ukraine will not be defeated. The fighting now is to determine Ukraine’s borders, and the state of the Russian military and regime that remains after the war.
Such an outcome would not have been possible without over $15bn in US military assistance provided this year, along with support from many other allies. Despite a slow start and unnecessary restrictions along the way, the Biden administration deserves enormous credit for saving Ukraine.
Yet assuring Ukraine’s survival is not the same as having a military strategy, and for achieving long-term Ukrainian and European security. Such a strategy requires a clear goal, assuring the means needed to achieve this goal, developing plans for how to proceed, mitigating the risks that Russia still represents, and putting in place the structures for the long term security of the country, and of Europe.
What should be the Western goal in Ukraine? President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian leadership have articulated it many times already: Ukrainian victory. It is essential for the security of Europe that Ukraine defeat the Russian military and restore control over all its occupied territory. Anything less would reward Putin’s aggression and leave in place a Russian military force that would regroup and attack again.
A fascist and imperialist Russia, willing to use force to expand its territory and address imagined historical grievances, is a threat to all of Europe, not just Ukraine. Europe will only be safe when Russia accepts that it must live within its own borders.
Despite the obvious self-interest in such a position, however, Western leaders have seldom if ever articulated such a clear goal. Instead, due to reflexive concerns about “escalation” and “provoking” Russia, Western leaders speak only in reactive terms – helping Ukraine to defend itself. Accordingly, despite the massive assistance being given, there is no clear sense of what must yet be done for Ukraine to win. Western aid is always just enough, but never really enough.
Putin is already waging a massive war of aggression. There is no need to worry about provoking him. Rather, Western leaders should recognize that the last thing Putin can afford is to draw other countries into the war. The Russian military is already losing the war it has chosen to fight. Expanding the conflict would simply accelerate Russia’s destruction. Putin makes threats of
escalation to cause fear in the West, but the reality is that his own forces fear escalation even more.
For Ukraine to win — and to do so as swiftly as possible with minimum loss of life — the United States and its allies must provide a steady, uninterrupted supply of ammunition and arms to Ukraine. But they must also adjust their military assistance in the following ways:
- Stop placing restrictions on assistance. In particular, we should immediately provide Ukraine with the longest-range artillery shells in our armory, so they can more effectively take out Russian supply lines, including ammunition, fuel, other logistics, and forward command positions. The currently supplied range of 80km (50 miles) does not allow Ukraine to hit Russian forces in Sevastopol, elsewhere in Crimea, the Kerch Strait bridge, or in much of Donbas. The argument that this restriction prevents Ukraine from attacking targets in Russia itself is false. The Ukrainians can already attack inside Russian territory, using existing weapons systems, if they wish to do so. They do not do so out of respect for US requests, and the fact that they rely upon a continued US supply of ammunition and arms. They will equally respect US wishes with 300km (186 mile) range shells.
- Provide Ukraine with combat aircraft and tanks. With long-range artillery, Ukraine will gradually be able to take out the means for Russia to sustain its forces in the field. We have seen this already east of Kharkiv and near Kherson. But Ukraine will need to fight from the air and to roll forward with armor in order to retake territory swiftly and with minimal casualties. The US can backfill other allies who could donate Soviet-made fighter aircraft, or provide used F-16 and A-10 aircraft. Ukrainian pilots are highly skilled and can easily adapt to different airframes. Some have already been trained on Western airframes. This is even more the case with armored vehicles.
- Strengthen air defenses around Ukrainian cities. Russia has exhausted its ability to launch offensive operations to take territory away from Ukrainian defenders. One of the few means left to inflict pain on Ukraine is to send missiles and bombs to hit its cities. Russia has relatively few precision-guided munitions left, so these are dumb bombs that have indiscriminate effects on civilian populations. The West should do as much as possible to help Ukraine establish its own “iron dome” around cities to save lives, especially now that Iranian-built drones are being used against urban targets.
- Strengthen Ukraine’s internal logistics network. As Ukraine advances into Russian-occupied areas, it will need to move its logistical system further forward. This will be increasingly challenging, and Western armed forces and contractors will need to train and assist Ukraine in building a robust internal logistics network to accomplish the task.
Providing the right equipment is essential to Ukraine executing the best possible on-the-ground strategy for retaking its territory as well as restoring port operations at Odesa and direct air services.
Ukraine must use long range artillery and fighter aircraft to significantly degrade Russia’s ability to sustain its deployed forces. This autumn, Ukraine should be able to retake Kherson city and
the west bank of the Dnipro river and make further gains in Donbas. By degrading Russian supply lines throughout the winter, Ukraine will emerge in a relatively stronger position to take back more territory next year.
In particular, Ukraine must take out Russian military infrastructure in Crimea, which enables Russia to continue to sustain its Black Sea fleet and threaten shipping in the western Black Sea. Just as with Snake Island in the western opening to Odesa, taking out the naval facilities at Sevastopol at the eastern opening would deny Russia the ability to base and resupply its naval forces in that area. They would need to go to Novorossiysk in Russian territory for berthing and re-supply. This will enable Ukraine to re-open Odesa not only for grain shipments, but the full range of commercial shipping essential to getting its economy back on its feet again, and ensuring Ukraine is able to help meet global food demand.
As Ukraine’s successes mount, Putin is already reacting and showing signs of weakness. Shopping for military equipment in North Korea and Iran, and mobilizing 300,000 reservists of far lower quality than already degraded regular forces, are all signs that Putin knows his military is failing.
It is essential that at such a dangerous moment, the West sends clear signals to Putin – as US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan did on September 25 — that any use of nuclear weapons (or other weapons of mass destruction) would have devastating consequences for Russia. Strategic nuclear deterrence still works, as any strategic nuclear use would ensure Russia’s destruction. But the Russian military must know that even the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine would result in a ruinous conventional response against Russia’s military capabilities.
Putin himself was careful to make clear that his recent threat to use nuclear weapons was linked to defending Russia’s territorial integrity. While he seeks to imply that the Ukrainian territory he wants to annex after sham referendums will also be defended with nuclear weapons, the reality is that he and his military know that this is not actually Russian territory and not worth the risk of nuclear use.
One way to mitigate Putin’s threats is to pierce the disinformation bubble his regime creates. It is essential that Western leaders continuously repeat that there is no threat to Russia itself: no one is attacking Russia, bombing Russian cities, killing Russian civilians, taking Russian territory, and so forth. Russia is attacking Ukraine, but no one is attacking or will attack Russia.
Likewise, the West must continuously strive to get truthful information about the war to the Russian people. Putin’s wall of information is permeable. The mass exodus response to his announced mobilization clearly shows that the Russian people are aware that things are not as presented by the Kremlin. They need access to reliable information which, if provided, will increase internal pressure to accelerate Russia’s pull back.
Finally, it is not too soon to begin planning the long-term structures of Ukrainian and European defense. Ukrainian armed forces need significant internal reform, including in logistics, internal communication, and training. They will need to be outfitted with the best possible Western military equipment in modern, full spectrum air, land, and sea forces. They will need to
drastically reform the defense industrial complex, breaking up Ukroboronprom, its state-owned defense manufacturer, licensing and engaging in joint ventures for military production inside Ukraine, and jettisoning corrupt or poorly performing parts of the defense industry. Western assistance here is critical as well.
Finally, it is clear from the Swedish and Finnish decisions to join NATO that neutrality in Europe is no longer a viable option. Ukraine will need security guarantees for the future, and the only guarantee that has proven to be effective thus far is NATO. It is too soon to make any steps toward Ukrainian NATO membership, but depending on how the war ends, the United States and Europe will have to give this fresh consideration.
This is the second in a series of four essays outlining a Western strategy for Ukraine in the months and years ahead. They address: rebuilding the Ukrainian economy; winning the war; a long-term perspective on Russia; and a long-term perspective on completing a Europe whole, free and at peace.
Ambassador Kurt Volker is a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA.) A leading expert in US foreign and national security policy, he served as US Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations from 2017-2019, and as US Ambassador to NATO from 2008-2009.