By STEVEN PIFER
Eleven months after Russia launched a massive invasion of Ukraine, Washington and Europe continue to pursue two basic objectives: help Ukraine win and avoid a direct NATO-Russia clash.
Unfortunately, in balancing these goals, Western governments are exercising overly excessive caution. They thus far have denied Ukraine weapons, such as Leopard tanks and Army Tactical Combat Missile Systems (ATACMS), that could have dramatic effects on the battlefield. This caution stems from fear that the Kremlin would escalate the conflict.
That fear is misplaced.
Russia’s brutal invasion has not met Moscow’s expectations. The Ukrainians stopped the assault on Kyiv last March, prompting a Russian withdrawal from northern Ukraine. Ukrainian forces slowed Russian attacks in Donbas before launching successful counteroffensives in the Kharkiv and Kherson regions in the fall.
As 2023 began, Russian forces prepared defensive positions to protect Ukrainian territory they still occupy, anticipating a spring Ukrainian offensive. Many analysts project a long war of attrition. That would mean more tragedy for Ukrainians, while the United States and Europe would face a growing challenge of sustaining domestic support for expensive arms and other assistance to Kyiv — possibly for years.
The West instead should now provide Ukraine with the offensive capabilities to drive the Russian military out or, at a minimum, to achieve such success on the battlefield that Moscow decides to negotiate a settlement on terms that Kyiv can accept.
German Leopard tanks, supported by U.S. Bradley and other infantry fighting vehicles, would give the Ukrainian army the ability to punch through Russian lines and exploit the resulting chaos. ATACMS could strike any Russian target in occupied Ukraine and wreak havoc on Russian logistics. They would augment 50-mile range HIMARS rockets, which have already forced the Russians to move command posts and ammunition dumps miles back from the front. Ukraine could do more with a 200-mile range ATACMS.
Western officials had the opportunity to agree on such arms when they met their Ukrainian counterparts on Jan. 20 in Ramstein, Germany. The West fell short. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is not yet ready to agree to send Leopard tanks to Ukraine or even to allow other countries to retransfer theirs. ATACMS remains a bridge too far for Washington.
The apparent reason for Western reluctance is fear of Russian escalation. But the Kremlin’s actions give little reason for that fear.
To be sure, Moscow has complained and made vague threats about third countries arming Ukraine. But weapon flows that began with man-portable Javelin anti-armor missiles now include armored vehicles, heavy artillery and huge amounts of ammunition. While Moscow sought to dissuade the West from providing arms, it has not escalated and, in effect, has tacitly accepted the flow of more numerous and more sophisticated weapons.
In September, Russian President Vladimir Putin and others voiced implicit, sometimes explicit, threats to use nuclear weapons. The threats had no effect on Ukrainian resolve and proved counterproductive with China, India and the Global South, which do not want to see the war go nuclear. In October, Moscow began toning down its nuclear rhetoric.
Also in September, Putin claimed to annex Ukraine’s Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson oblasts, suggesting he would defend them as if they were Mother Russia itself. Six weeks later, the Ukrainian military liberated Kherson west of the Dnipro River. The Kremlin spokesman lamely responded “This is Russian territory” but did not threaten escalation. While the Russian military began strikes on civilian infrastructure, they appear motivated more by general failure on the battlefield than by any specific Ukrainian act.
In November, a Ukrainian attack with naval drones on Russian ships in Sevastopol led Moscow to proclaim a suspension of the arrangement allowing grain to be shipped from Odesa and other Ukrainian ports. Ukraine, Turkey and the United Nations quickly announced resumed shipments, and Moscow meekly acquiesced.
The January announcement that Britain would send Challenger tanks to Ukraine produced a muted reaction. The Kremlin spokesman said the decision “can’t change anything. The special military operation will continue. These tanks will burn.” Hardly a threat of escalation.
Does the Kremlin have hard red lines? Perhaps. They could well include U.S. and NATO forces entering the conflict, but U.S. and NATO leaders have long ruled that out. Moscow might try to draw a red line for Crimea, which seems to matter more to the Kremlin than other occupied Ukrainian territories. But Crimea is occupied Ukrainian territory, and the West should not accord it special status. Deep strikes into Russia might cross a line, though what entitles the Russian aggressor to have a sanctuary? If this remains a concern, tell the Ukrainians to use ATACMs only against targets in occupied Ukraine.
Russian officials have not drawn clear red lines, and they have not enforced the vague threats they voiced earlier. When Moscow puts so little effort into deterring the West, the West should not let itself be deterred.
Spring is coming. Send Ukraine the Leopards and ATACMS now.
Steven Pifer, an affiliate of Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation and a nonresident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, is a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.