By the Editorial Board
May 28, 2023
The Washington Post
In addition to weapons, tactics and fighting spirit, time is the key variable that will determine the outcome of Moscow’s pitiless war in Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, convinced that Russia can out-suffer its adversaries and sustain a grinding war of attrition in Ukraine for months or years, is confident he can wear down public support among Kyiv’s backers in the United States and Europe. In Washington and other Western capitals, leaders are now taking long-delayed steps to turn the strategic tables on Moscow’s tyrant. Here’s hoping it’s not too late.
In the lead-up to last weekend’s Group of Seven summit of leading industrialized nations, in Hiroshima, Japan, President Biden and some of his partners announced they would supply Ukraine with major new weapons systems and packages, intended to augment Kyiv’s growing military muscle. At least as important as the hardware was the goal to convince Mr. Putin that he is wrong to think time is on his side.
Among major recent Western moves to boost Ukraine’s military, three were critical. One was Mr. Biden’s sharp reversal in allowing Ukrainian pilots to be trained on F-16 fighter jets, and to permit other countries to prepare to send those planes to Ukraine. A second was Germany’s announcement of a $3 billion package of weapons, including 30 Leopard battle tanks, 20 infantry fighting vehicles, 18 self-propelled howitzers, four Iris-T air-defense missile systems and 200 reconnaissance drones, in addition to artillery munition. The third was Britain’s decision to supply Ukraine with long-range cruise missiles.
The central importance of those steps is that they are not short-term commitments. The F-16s, which, in addition to extensive training, require major logistics and maintenance components, would be ready for use in Ukraine — where they would negate Moscow’s hopes of gaining air superiority at the end of this year at the earliest. Deliveries of the German arms package are expected to take months as well.
Britain’s announcement to send Storm Shadow cruise missiles was quietly in the works for months. They enable Ukraine to knock out Russian command centers and other targets at least 155 miles away — three times the range of the U.S.-made HIMARS that were instrumental in Ukraine’s push to regain territory that Moscow had captured earlier in the war.
President Volodymyr Zelensky and other Ukrainian leaders have pleaded for months with Washington to send similar U.S.-made missiles, known as ATACMS, whose range is roughly 200 miles. The White House and Pentagon have demurred, worried Ukraine would use the weapon to attack Moscow’s forces in Russian-occupied Crimea, a supposed red line for the Kremlin.
Deployment of the U.K.-made missiles has already begun, and London says they have been used successfully. Useful as the Storm Shadows might be, their importance should not be overstated. Just a few dozen are believed to have been delivered so far from Britain’s limited stocks, and, at a cost of nearly $1 million apiece, it’s unclear how many more will be available through and after Ukraine’s counteroffensive this year. The target should be hundreds, to meet Kyiv’s defense needs.
It would have been useful for Ukraine if these latest commitments had happened earlier, in time for its much-anticipated counteroffensive, thought to be imminent. Still, they are tangible proof that Western leaders are serious when they pledge to support Ukraine “for as long as it takes.” Mr. Putin should take notice.
The fighting in Ukraine is unlikely to subside any time soon; in Washington and Europe, officials are laying plans to add muscle to Kyiv’s defense capabilities over the next decade, assuming Russia’s aggressive designs will persist. Mr. Putin has already put Russia’s defense industry on a wartime production footing; he has indicated that he is willing to call up hundreds of thousands more recruits. Subjugating Ukraine, and erasing its identity, is not just an ideological project for him; he sees it as his legacy. Even if there is a pause or negotiated truce at some future date, no one expects Mr. Putin to abandon that ambition. And, of course, he is rooting for another term for Donald Trump, who has vowed to end the war in Ukraine in a day — possibly by cutting off U.S. military aid.
That means the burden is on the West to formulate plans for a long-term struggle. Arms supplies, procurement systems and defense budgets will need to reflect that commitment. Kyiv’s forces will need more cruise missiles from its Western allies, more ammunition, more air defense systems, more tanks, more armored vehicles. Ukraine’s fight is for core Western values — the right to join the family of democratic, pluralistic and tolerant nations, no matter how anathema that is to a retrograde dictator bent on conquest.