As long as Putin wants war, seeking a peace settlement is a fantasy.
The Editorial Board
The Wall Street Journal
Feb. 21, 2023
A year of war in Ukraine hasn’t changed Vladimir Putin, and we hope Western politicians preaching “peace” were listening to his speech on Tuesday. The Russian promised nothing but more war and blamed the West for it. His choice in turn means there is only a binary choice for the West: Give Ukraine the weapons to win, or abandon Ukraine and live with the fallout for decades.
It’s worth noting how little Mr. Putin’s ambitions have changed since he rolled over Ukraine’s border last Feb. 24. His humiliating failure to capture Kyiv in the war’s first days didn’t dissuade him from regrouping to attack the country’s east. Russian forces are now launching a fresh offensive and grinding down Ukrainians in Bakhmut.
The Russians have lost some 2,000 tanks, half of the operational fleet, according to estimates, and appear to be hauling old Soviet equipment out of storage. But Mr. Putin has turned to Iran for a steady supply of drones and other military equipment, and now he’s hoping that China will ship him weapons. “Significantly” more than 100,000 Russians are dead or wounded, the Pentagon says, but Mr. Putin is throwing 200,000 more into the fight, even with little training or equipment.
Mr. Putin’s goal is unchanged: Control most or all of Ukraine, and incorporate it into his greater Russian empire. He still thinks he can outlast the Ukrainian government and its Western supporters. Many in the U.S. and Europe are ready to head to a negotiating table, but Mr. Putin is not. The only settlement he has in mind is Ukraine’s surrender.
The fastest route to peace then is defeating Mr. Putin, which the Biden Administration still seems reluctant to admit. Mr. Biden hasn’t wavered in his rhetorical support for Ukraine, and his Tuesday speech in Poland struck the right note that autocrats “cannot be appeased” but “must be opposed.”
Yet his air of triumphalism is premature—Ukraine could still lose—and it is backed by ambivalent action. In the latest example, Mr. Biden is still holding back the Army tactical missile system, long-range weapons that the Ukrainians desperately want so they can strike deeper into Russian positions. The Administration is leaking that the U.S. military doesn’t have any to spare, but allied inventory estimates run in the thousands.
This has been the pattern for a year. The Biden team throws up reasons why a certain weapon—tanks, Patriot missile defenses, Himars—can’t be provided to Ukraine. The system is too complex. The training will take too long. Then these objections suddenly vanish after criticism in
public and from Congress, and Ukraine gets the goods. Can we skip ahead and provide F-16 fighter jets now?
Getting Ukraine the weapons they need is increasingly urgent. If Russia receives arms from China, the war will descend into an even bloodier stalemate or a Ukrainian defeat. Political support could fray in European capitals and in Washington, even as Beijing’s involvement raised the global risks of defeat.
To that end, Mr. Biden might speak more directly to the Americans who are increasingly skeptical of the stakes in Ukraine, and ground his case for U.S. support in core national interests, not Wilsonian flights about foreign “sovereignty” and democracy.
The stakes in Ukraine aren’t confined to Eastern Europe. Russia, Iran and China are working together—you might even call it an Axis—to dominate as much of the world as they can. If Ukraine is absorbed into a Greater Russian Co-Prosperity Sphere, the world will make accommodations to the autocrats.
The risks of backing Ukraine are real, but the risks of abandoning it are greater. The Ukrainians have put up an audacious fight but, absent more advanced U.S. arms, this story could still end with Mr. Putin a greater menace to Europe, China emboldened, and the United States weaker. That’s not a peace to desire.