The initial reluctance of the U.S. and its allies to help Kyiv fight Russia has turned into a massive program of military assistance, which carries risks of its own
By Yaroslav Trofimov
Feb. 25, 2023
The Wall Street Journal
Two days before the Russian invasion of his country, on Feb. 22, 2022, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba was welcomed to the White House. As he greeted President Biden and senior administration officials, Mr. Kuleba later recalled, he felt like a patient surrounded by doctors presenting him with a diagnosis of stage-four cancer.
The consensus among the U.S. and its European allies was that there was nothing they could do to prevent the inevitable. Their intelligence services predicted a Russian takeover of Kyiv and a collapse of the Ukrainian state within days. The U.S. by then had already closed down its embassy and evacuated all American personnel.
The Western military supplies that had been shipped to Kyiv in previous weeks, such as Javelin antitank missiles and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, were the kind of arms that small bands of Ukrainians would need for an insurgency after the Russian occupation. Ukraine’s requests for the heavy weapons that it needed to wage a conventional war to prevent such an occupation had been turned down.
Ukraine was not completely on its own, of course, and the U.S. was already laying the groundwork for serious economic sanctions on Russia. But Western engagement was carefully calibrated—and designed to avoid any appearance that the Western alliance had tried and failed to avert the downfall of Ukraine by military means.
A year later, the war in Ukraine has become, to a large extent, the West’s own. True, no American or NATO soldiers are fighting and dying on Ukrainian soil. But the U.S., its European allies and Canada have now sent some $120 billion in weapons and other aid to Ukraine, with new, more advanced military supplies on the way. If this monumental effort fails to thwart President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions, the setback would not only undermine American credibility on the world stage but also raise difficult questions about the future of the Western alliance. “In many ways, we’re all-in, and we’re all-in because the realization has dawned in Europe that showing weakness to President Putin, showing no response to his atrocities, only invites him to go further and further,” said Sjoerd Sjoerdsma, a Dutch politician and member of parliament. “We have also realized that it is not only the safety and security of Ukraine that is at stake but also our own.”
The Russian military’s mixture of unexpected ineptitude and shocking cruelty has pulled the U.S. and allies deeper and deeper into the conflict. With one self-imposed constraint falling after another, Western goals have gradually moved from preventing the obliteration of Ukraine to supporting its military victory over Russia. It’s a more ambitious commitment that carries much higher risks—but also strategic rewards—for the Western alliance.
By repelling the initial Russian onslaught, the Ukrainians have punctured the myth of Russia’s military invincibility and proved that helping Ukraine isn’t a quixotic endeavor. Just as importantly, the horrors inflicted by Russian troops in Bucha, Mariupol, Izyum and other parts of Ukraine have jolted public opinion in North America and Europe, spurring heretofore reluctant governments into action. “Nobody thought the Russians would start a medieval war in the 21st century,” said Sen. James Risch, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “This conflict is going to change the face of Europe as much as World War II did.”
It’s not just the fate of Europe that is being decided on the battlefields of Ukraine, where Russia has regained momentum after a mobilization last fall and is launching renewed offensives. In Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere, the West’s geopolitical adversaries are calculating whether the U.S. and its allies have the stamina and cohesion to defend the rules-based international order that has benefited the West for decades.
In particular, the future of Taiwan and the South China Sea is closely linked to the West’s record in Ukraine. “Beijing is watching closely, to see the price Russia pays, or the reward it receives, for its aggression. What is happening in Europe today can happen in Asia tomorrow,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned the Munich Security Conference this month. “If Putin wins in Ukraine, the message to him and other authoritarian leaders will be that they can use force to get what they want. This will make the world more dangerous and us more vulnerable.”
The Munich conference capped several weeks in which the U.S. and its allies have dramatically expanded the scope of their military aid, an indication that Mr. Putin’s expectation that the West will eventually tire of helping Ukraine hasn’t materialized just yet. In fact, they will deliver more weapons to Ukraine in the next few months than they did in the whole of 2022. As British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said in Munich, “Now is the moment to double down on our military support.”
On Monday, Mr. Biden highlighted the growing Western resolve as he traveled to Kyiv to meet Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky. Unveiling yet another U.S. weapons package, valued at $460 million, he recalled the pessimistic predictions of February 2022. “One year later, Kyiv stands and Ukraine stands. Democracy stands,” Mr. Biden said. “The Americans stand with you, and the world stands with you.”
The war in Ukraine isn’t likely to end anytime soon. Both sides believe they can win on the battlefield, and little room exists for peace negotiations. Ukraine is preparing offensives to regain the roughly 18% of its territory still occupied by Moscow, including the Crimea peninsula and parts of the eastern Donbas region that Mr. Putin seized in 2014. Russia has declared four Ukrainian regions, none of which it fully controls, to be its own sovereign territory and seeks, at the very least, to conquer those lands. Mr. Putin, in a speech on Tuesday, indicated that his aspirations remain much broader, referring to Russia’s “historical territories that are now called Ukraine.”
A year into Europe’s bloodiest conflict since World War II, Ukraine’s own military industries have been shattered by Russian missile strikes, and its reserves of Soviet-vintage weapons are running out. By now, Kyiv can keep fighting only as long as Western assistance continues apace. Though public support for Ukraine has proven remarkably resilient in the U.S. and Europe, there is no guarantee that the mood won’t shift in the future, especially if there is a serious economic downturn. “The next months will be very critical. If, say, another Ukrainian offensive fails, if it
becomes the public narrative that it’s going to be a stalemate, support in the West might drop—perhaps not substantially, but some of the politicians will see the writing on the wall,” cautioned Franz-Stefan Gady, a senior fellow at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London.
Since the war’s first days, Mr. Zelensky has taken advantage of his skills as an actor and communicator to speak directly to a variety of audiences worldwide. He has addressed university commencements, music festivals and sports tournaments in an effort to make Ukraine’s fight for freedom into a moral and emotional issue rather than yet another foreign-policy problem. His approach has clearly paid off. “In diplomacy, morality is part of the public narrative, but rarely part of the real decision-making process. But Ukraine’s case was one of the examples in history when you can argue that sympathy based on moral arguments was a game changer,” said Mr. Kuleba, the Ukrainian foreign minister. “Some governments acted the way they did not merely based on their practical considerations but under enormous pressure of their public opinion. And that public opinion was based on moral compassion for the victim of the aggression.”
Mr. Putin has tried to counter the Ukrainian message by appealing to fear. On the first morning of the war, he alluded to nuclear weapons to deter the West from helping Ukraine. “A few important, very important, words for those who may be tempted to interfere in the ongoing events,” Mr. Putin said sternly. “Whoever attempts to meddle, and even more so to create threats for our country, for our people, must know that Russia’s response will be immediate, and will cause you such consequences that you have never encountered in your history. We are ready for any turn of events. All required decisions have already been made.”
Since then, the Russian president and his senior aides have repeatedly brandished the nuclear threat. They implied in September, for instance, that attempts by Ukraine to regain territories annexed by Russia, such as Kherson, might be met with a nuclear strike. Ukraine reclaimed Kherson in November. “Putin is threatening Armageddon, and the Russians are doing it all the time, sometimes in oblique ways and sometimes in a more direct way,” said John Sullivan, who served as U.S. ambassador in Moscow until September and was surprised during his tenure by how frequently his Russian interlocutors casually raised the prospect of nuclear war. “But when you actually poke at that and provide weapons gradually over time, there hasn’t been the catastrophic response that Putin promised.”
Though Mr. Putin’s nuclear blackmail didn’t fully succeed, it did prompt initial restraint in Western military support for Ukraine. In the first several months after the Russian invasion, the Biden administration took a gradualist approach that White House officials have described as “boiling the frog.” As the U.S. began to introduce new weapons systems, it did so slowly and, initially, in limited numbers. None of these individual decisions were of sufficient scope to provoke a dramatic escalation by Moscow. But over the past 12 months, the cumulative effect of these new weapons has transformed the balance of power on the battlefield and enabled a string of strategic Ukrainian victories.
After sending more Javelins and Stingers to Ukraine in the first weeks of the war, Washington provided M777 howitzers in the spring and Himars missile systems in the summer. The U.K., Poland, Germany, France and the Netherlands have also contributed large arsenals of comparable weapons, such as the French-made Caesar and German-made Panzerhaubitze self-propelled guns. These supplies allowed Ukrainian forces to stop Russian advances in the Donbas region over the summer and to push back with offensives in the Kharkiv and Kherson regions during the fall.
Now, Patriot air-defense batteries, Abrams and Leopard tanks, and Bradley and Stryker fighting vehicles are on the way, aiming to enable Ukraine to regain more ground in another offensive this spring. In an indication of the next likely milestone, some NATO allies, such as the Netherlands, are already pushing to provide Ukraine with a fleet of F-16 jet fighters, a move considered an outlandish fantasy just a few months ago. “If you look at the arc of Western involvement, no one would have predicted where we are now six months ago, and the same goes for six months before that. It’s a crisis response that has evolved into a policy—a policy that, probably, no one would have prescribed at the outset,” said Samuel Charap, a senior political scientist at Rand Corp. who has urged caution on arming Ukraine.
There are risks to such a reactive approach, he added. “The West is also the frog that is boiling itself. With each incremental increase in assistance, qualitative or quantitative, we become accustomed to that being normal, and the next one doesn’t seem so extreme,” Mr. Charap said. “There is a dynamic here where we become desensitized to what is going on. We are in a bit of a slow-moving spiral that shows no signs of letting up.”
Other analysts and policy makers argue that the true danger lies in excessive caution over accelerating Western military involvement. “We have been slow in delivering certain capabilities. We keep climbing the stairs, but it goes through a tortuous process, and in the meantime Ukrainians are dying,” said ret. Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, a former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe. “It has taken the Pentagon a long time to come to the realization that Ukraine can win, and will win, especially if we give them what they need. There has been all too much defeatist hand-wringing.”
The current Western dedication to Ukraine’s struggle for independence is striking when compared with the prevailing attitudes of the relatively recent past. Back in 1991, President George H.W. Bush viewed Ukraine’s desire for freedom as a dangerous nuisance. That year, just months before the Soviet Union’s collapse, he delivered to the Ukrainian parliament his infamous “Chicken Kiev” speech, urging Ukrainians to abandon “suicidal nationalism” and permanently remain under the Kremlin’s rule.
In 2014, after Mr. Putin annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and triggered a bloody war in the eastern Donbas region, covertly sending troops and heavy weapons across the border, the American and European response was limited to sanctions that only marginally affected Russia’s economy.
At the time, President Barack Obama resisted calls to help Ukraine militarily as he sought Mr. Putin’s cooperation on his presidency’s main foreign-policy priority, the nuclear deal with Iran. Ukraine, Mr. Obama said in an interview with the Atlantic in 2016, “is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do.” All the evidence of the past 50 years, he added, suggested that Russian (and Chinese) decision-making wouldn’t be influenced by “talking tough or engaging in some military action.”
Mr. Biden, speaking in front of U.S., Polish and Ukrainian flags to a cheering crowd in Warsaw on Tuesday, had a different message. “Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia,” he pledged. “Appetites of the autocrat cannot be appeased. They must be opposed.”