New York Post

John Herbst

February 23, 2023


It was hard to imagine one year ago that Ukraine and its allies would be in such a strong position today.

President Biden traveled to Kyiv this week to symbolize, dramatically, US support for Ukraine “as long as it takes” and then to Poland for a speech underscoring the strength of NATO and the resilience of the West.

Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, gave a long speech that repeated tired talking points designed to persuade the Russian people that retaining seized Ukrainian territory is somehow an existential matter for Russia.

Hundreds of thousands of Russian men are fleeing forced “mobilization” into the Russian war machine. Putin’s army is bogged down in Ukraine. And, in a futile effort to flex his muscles two hours before Biden’s speech, Putin ordered the test of an intercontinental ballistic missile that fizzled. Talk about a bad day for a bad boy.

But the news is not all good. Moscow’s war of aggression is far from over and much remains to be done. Biden administration leadership has been adequate to the challenge, but not robust. Putin is counting on Western support to Ukraine to fade with time. Were that to happen, he might yet secure victory out of his current difficult circumstances.

While polls show a majority of Americans still support sending Ukraine the more than $50 billion military and economic aid the United States is currently providing, that number is slipping.

The rise of geopolitically challenged activists on the fringes of both parties (but especially among Republicans), who ignore the dangers that Putin’s policy pose to America, is at the heart of this.

The White House needs to lead a bipartisan effort to explain to the American people that the Kremlin’s aggressive policy has NATO members in its sights, which means defeating Putin in Ukraine is the smart and economical way to defend our security and prosperity.

A Putin win in Ukraine would lead to a major rise in US defense spending to strengthen NATO’s east. Senior Republican senators are already making this case. But only the commander in chief enjoys the bully pulpit to educate the public.

This rhetorical clarity must be accompanied by a bolder administration policy.

Starting with its first decisions just before the February invasion to supply Ukraine with weapons, Washington has been slow to send the right weapons systems in sufficient quantity. The administration has been deterred by the great Putin con game of suggesting redlines that might cause him to use nuclear weapons, even though such “redlines” have been crossed with impunity.

For instance, when Ukraine struck at targets in Russian-occupied Crimea and when it continued its counteroffensive last fall in Russian-“annexed” Donbas and Kherson.

Sadly this timidity persists. Ukraine needs three things: tanks, advanced Western warplanes and long-range missile launchers. While America and its allies and partners recently decided to send tanks, the number — 100+ — is helpful, but not decisive, and for some reason many of these tanks will not arrive this spring or summer. A robust policy would triple that number and ensure arrival in time for an offensive this year.

Meanwhile, the United States is still saying “No” to the F-16s and long-range fires such as ATACMS. The provision of ATACMS would shut down immediately Moscow’s bloody offensive in Donbas. Combined with F-16s, A-10s (and other advanced Western warplanes) and more tanks, they would make it likely that Ukraine could cut the land bridge from Russia through Russian-occupied Donbas to Crimea this year.

This would force Russian troops in southern mainland Ukraine to retreat to Crimea and pose a huge logistical problem for Putin to supply the Russian military and occupation authorities there. It would also create a major political problem for the Putin regime in Russia.

Hand-wringing on background is not a sign of sophistication, but indecisiveness. Dribbling to Ukraine the weapons it needs to put Putin on his back is the same. Biden prides himself on his foreign-policy savvy. Now is his great moment on the historical stage to secure his reputation as a statesman.


John Herbst is director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and a former US ambassador to Ukraine under George W. Bush.