By FRIDRIK JONSSON and ERLINGUR ERLINGSSON
With less than two months until the anniversary of the Russian reinvasion of Ukraine, it is time to take a strategic view of the continued Western response and the path to a successful conclusion to the war.
Ukrainian bravery and sacrifice, aided by significant support from NATO and European Union member states, helped stave off an early Ukrainian defeat. However, it is now critical to redouble allied efforts in order to help Ukraine evict the Russians and create the conditions for sustainable peace. This includes the delivery of weapons that allies have been reluctant to give to Ukrainians, but, more importantly, NATO should intensify its efforts and take an active role in the defense of Ukraine in response to Russia’s illegal war.
Fortunately, the West already has the means and structure through NATO to plan, coordinate and execute this enhanced support to bring about an end to the war. NATO allies can do this through a carefully telegraphed set of escalatory steps in direct support of Ukraine that go well beyond the support given to date. This includes the deployment of NATO-operated air defense inside Ukraine (starting with western Ukraine), greatly-expanded provision of targeting and training support, as well as assistance with logistics, maintenance and repairs inside Ukraine — including that of civilian infrastructure.
NATO allies should also abandon self-imposed limits on weapon supplies and deliver critical tools that can shift the momentum further in Ukraine’s favor. This includes armored fighting vehicles (IFVs), tanks, drones, long-range artillery (ATACMS) and fixed-wing fighters. The above steps for enhanced material support and NATO involvement ought to be fleshed out and implemented starting in early 2023.
The clearly-telegraphed deployment of NATO personnel would give Russia pause in its indiscriminate targeting of Ukraine and allow Ukraine to focus on recovering occupied territory. NATO member support for Ukraine has already resulted in the destruction of a large part of the offensive power of the Russian military. This, coupled with the piercing of the myth of Russian military power and reinvigoration of the Western alliance, has come at a relatively low financial cost to allies, so even for those driven by narrow national interest, supporting Ukraine has been and continues to be extremely worthwhile.
Before the outbreak of war, many Western governments and experts predicted a Ukrainian collapse; NATO trainers were withdrawn and embassies evacuated, thus weakening deterrence. The unexpected Ukrainian battlefield success did force the West to rethink its approach and greatly increase deliveries of defensive weapons and other support.
However, ongoing self-imposed arbitrary restraints, statements ruling out direct interference and restrictions on the provision of support, including on certain types of weapons, are needlessly extending the war. This includes spurious red lines to avoid a potential Russian nuclear response to any number of Western supportive steps. While not to be taken lightly, these concerns are overblown and unsupported by evidence. At the end of the day, Russian leaders know that a first-use nuclear strike will forever undermine the Russian state and make it an outlaw in the international system, supercharging today’s robust sanctions indefinitely. Deterrence, nuclear or otherwise, should not include publicly telegraphed self-neutering policies.
These self-imposed red lines have fed into Vladimir Putin’s fundamental strategic approach — allowing him to pivot to a war of attrition with the aim of exhausting and fragmenting allied support. His aim, as proven successful against Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, is to outlast any sanctions or Western responses to achieve a de facto victory, denying Ukraine membership of the EU and NATO. It also appears clear that Russian claims to be open to negotiation are a mere stalling tactic.
It is, thus, a fundamental risk to Western unity to let this war drag on by denying the Ukrainians the means to continue to shape the final outcome on the battlefield. Clearer messaging of potential escalatory moves by the West, including through the threat of direct engagement in support of Ukraine, can provide a coercive “off-ramp” for Putin, by raising the cost of continuing a war he cannot win on the battlefield. While the current Russian extremist political environment makes a loss to Ukraine unacceptable and demeaning, a loss to the collective West could perversely fit into Russia’s domestic narrative of victimhood and encirclement. Despite its bombastic rhetoric, Russia does not want direct confrontation with NATO.
With the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe hamstrung or paralyzed, only NATO has the tools, organization and wherewithal to stand up to this illegal Russian campaign. Doing so will immeasurably enhance future security on the continent and beyond. Allowing Russia to wear out Ukraine and exhaust the Western alliance’s appetite for support and associated costs, such as higher energy prices, only guarantees that a future NATO conflict with Russia becomes a matter of time, exposing our allies in the Baltics and elsewhere to the potential horrors we have seen in Bucha and Mariupol.
We must not forget that while Ukraine fights for its own survival, it is also fighting for the very security architecture that has sustained a largely peaceful international system since 1945. If a revanchist Russia achieves any sort of victory in this war, it will inevitably lead to a wider conflict in the future. It will also tempt other belligerents to launch their own military adventures for territorial expansion without fear of a robust and enduring Western response. The illegal Russian assault on Ukraine is a test of our willingness to defend the principles of national sovereignty and the rule of law. We must act now or regret inaction later.
Fridrik Jonsson is a former representative of Iceland to NATO’s Military Committee, including serving one year as its dean. Erlingur Erlingsson is a former visiting fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University SAIS and the former deputy chief of mission at the Embassy of Iceland in Washington.