By Stephen Blank

February 06, 2023

Real Clear Defense


Russia either has just launched its expected offensive or it is imminent.  Yet Ukraine’s allies are still unable or unwilling to give it the full complement of what it needs to win.  Moreover, the signs of eroding public support for U.S. assistance are multiplying.  The unseemly recent spectacle of allied divisions over providing tanks ended with Ukraine still not getting as many tanks as it requested or needs.  Now the struggle has shifted to air planes and air defenses and here too allied fissures abound.  Germany, again displaying its cowardice, refuses to give Ukraine airplanes while President Biden rejects giving Kyiv F-16s.  In both cases the reason is what has long since become a standard operating response that this will provoke Moscow who might actually escalate against NATO.

Unfortunately these equivocations employ the long-standing “Moscow factor” discernible in U.S. and Western policy, namely that we cannot do anything for Ukraine that may provoke Russia who, after all, has usable nuclear weapons  and regularly threatens to use them.  However, this signal of Western fear merely emboldens Putin who apparently still thinks he can win, in no small measure due to such overtly expressed fears. Worse yet it ignores years of Soviet and Russian history that demonstrate no such inhibitions on Moscow’s part when it comes to sending aircraft and air defenses to our adversaries.

During the Korean War Soviet pilots flew combat missions in Soviet Mig-15s for North Korea.  We knew this but covered it up lest it provoke an escalation.  In the Vietnam War Moscow similarly provided North Vietnam with millions of dollars of aircraft, radars, air defense systems, etc.  In the two wars fought by Egypt against Israel, already a Western partner, in 1967 and 1973, Moscow similarly provided billions of dollars of tanks, planes, air defenses, etc. to its Arab clients.  Indeed, in the so called “war of attrition” in 1969-70 its pilots even flew combat missions out of Egypt against Israel. Thus, such conduct is hardly unprecedented.  Moreover, in none of these cases did Moscow evince any great concern that we would escalate.

Furthermore, Moscow already believes it is fighting the “collective West”, and its leadership has made numerous statements to that effect while similarly claiming that the entire European, if not global, security order is illegitimate.  Washington and Europe also seem oblivious to the fact that Putin and his military know full well that attacking Europe brings NATO and Article V into play.  Yet we are still inhibited to the point where Putin et al can claim that their belief in the decadence of the West is justified.  In this manner we validate the old Russian proverb that fear has big eyes.

To invoke another famous Russian trope, what must be done?  Beyond sending Ukraine the tanks, planes, air defenses, and naval warfare support it needs, both the Administration and our allies must undertake the following actions immediately.  President Biden and leading members of his administration, as well as allied leaders in Europe, must address our and with it their publics and state clearly what is at stake here.  To put it bluntly, there is no possible or conceivable European, or even international security, if Russia prevails, for its own leaders, as suggested above, have made clear that they are attacking not just Ukraine but the very concept of order itself.  Furthermore, as shown by Putin’s speeches, writings, and the behavior of Russian troops and media, this is a genocidal war to destroy the idea and reality of a Ukrainian state, restore the Russian empire lost in 1989, and ensure the continuity of Putin’s patrimonial autocracy.  Our values and interests demand that the only answer to preserve order, justice, and peace is the comprehensive defeat of Putin and with it his system.

Second, as in any time of war — and we should discard any illusions that we are not under attack—we need a hot production line whereby the defense industry, if not the overall economy, are mobilized to provide a renewed arsenal of democracy that is under attack in Asia by China as well.  This also means that existing legislation, e.g., the Lend-Lease Act of 2022, should be invigorated and made into a large-scale basis for the supply of critical weapons and materials, and enhanced electric capacity to Ukraine.  Apart from planes, air defenses, artillery, and tanks we should also provide it with the means to break the illegal Russian naval blockade of the Black Sea that threatens it and the world with a global food crisis.

Third, we should be working to persuade our allies to bring Ukraine into NATO as soon as possible, immediately, if possible, to make clear to Moscow that it lost.  Likewise, we should persuade our allies to place Ukraine on a membership track for the EU.  Undoubtedly these policies will infuriate Putin but they will show him that the game is up and end the war sooner rather than later, for he and his entourage know that escalation against NATO invites the destruction of Russia.  But if we continue to take counsel of our fears rather than seize the once in a lifetime opportunity now presented to us, we will have ample reasons to be fearful in the future calamity that would likely, and sadly, deservedly occur.

Stephen J. Blank, Ph.D., is Senior Fellow at FPRI’s Eurasia Program. He has published over 1500 articles and monographs on Soviet/Russian, U.S., Asian, and European military and foreign policies, testified frequently before Congress on Russia, China, and Central Asia, consulted for the Central Intelligence Agency, major think tanks and foundations, chaired major international conferences in the U.S. and in Florence; Prague; and London, and has been a commentator on foreign affairs in the media in the U.S. and abroad. He has also advised major corporations on investing in Russia and is a consultant for the Gerson Lehrmann Group. He has published or edited 15 books, most recently Russo-Chinese Energy Relations: Politics in Command (London: Global Markets Briefing, 2006). He has also published Natural Allies? Regional Security in Asia and Prospects for Indo-American Strategic Cooperation (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2005). He is currently completing a book entitled Light From the East: Russia’s Quest for Great Power Status in Asia to be published in 2014 by Ashgate. Dr. Blank is also the author of The Sorcerer as Apprentice: Stalin’s Commissariat of Nationalities (Greenwood, 1994); and the co-editor of The Soviet Military and the Future (Greenwood, 1992).