By the Editorial Board
August 23, 2023
The Washington Post
Nearly half a million casualties, including almost 200,000 dead — that is the staggering toll to date of the slaughter by which history will remember Russian President Vladimir Putin’s lawless invasion of Ukraine. The estimates, by U.S. officials, are a running count as the war reaches its 18th month this week. The numbers will surely climb.
No end to the carnage is in sight, and calls for a negotiated solution are wishful thinking at this point. As Mr. Putin invests in Russia’s war economy, he shows no signs of giving up his fantasy of Russian neo-imperial glory. That hard truth leaves the United States and its European allies with few appealing options, especially as Ukraine’s grinding military offensive, launched in early June, remains far short of its goal: to evict Russia’s forces. Deeply entrenched in a miles-deep maze of defensive lines behind some of the most heavily mined terrain on Earth, the occupiers retain control of roughly 18 percent of Ukrainian territory.
According to a recent Post report, U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that Kyiv is unlikely to achieve its main objective this year: breaking south through enemy lines and reaching the Sea of Azov. The idea was to sever the occupied corridor through Ukraine that connects Russia to the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow seized illegally in 2014.
Washington’s intelligence assessments have been wrong in the past, specifically by overestimating the proficiency of Russia’s military and the competence of its political leadership, and by underestimating Ukraine’s resolve and resourcefulness on the battlefield. Reports from the front lines and from Russian military bloggers suggest that Ukrainian morale remains high and that badly led, poorly supplied Russian troops are increasingly desperate. Kyiv’s forces continue to make modest gains despite the daunting challenge of advancing against Russia’s massively fortified positions.
Still, the raw disparities of scale in this fight are not going to disappear. Russia’s huge advantages in population and weapons-making capacity are bolstered by Mr. Putin’s decision to mobilize the nation’s industrial might to sustain an indefinite war. The Kremlin, having intensified its propaganda and crackdown on political dissent, has all but eliminated public expressions of antiwar views. The war could continue for years — waxing, waning or frozen.
The West, despite having sent massive amounts of military aid, has not supplied Kyiv’s forces in a timely way with the advanced fighter jets, long-range missiles and tanks that Ukrainian officials have long pleaded for. Only now are Ukrainian pilots learning to fly U.S.-made F-16 jets, which have figured prominently on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s wish list since the first months of the war. Delivery of the first of those jets, from the arsenals of Denmark
and Holland, is not expected until next year, too late to supply air cover for Ukrainian ground troops in their current push.
The reluctance of leaders in Washington and Europe to furnish arms on a timeline that might have improved Ukraine’s territorial gains this summer has triggered frustration in Kyiv and hand-wringing among top Western diplomats. “Had decisions been taken faster and with more anticipation on some of the weapons systems which we ended up sending, then probably the war would have taken a different path, and, in any case, we would have saved lives,” Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said this week.
Faced with a long-term war of attrition, President Biden and European leaders need a two-track strategy that encompasses short- and long-term planning to ensure Ukraine’s sovereignty and survival. The short-term piece means maintaining support, as all of Ukraine’s major allies have pledged to do. With the current flow of U.S. assistance set to run out this fall, Mr. Biden has proposed a further $24 billion military and economic aid package, more than half of which would be for weapons, materiel and intelligence to sustain Kyiv’s forces.
It is critical that Congress approve that request even as an increasing share of the American public, especially Republicans, is souring on U.S. military aid. A bipartisan majority on Capitol Hill has embraced the idea that Mr. Putin’s war of aggression is a threat not just to Ukraine’s existence and its aspirations to join the family of free, democratic nations, but also to the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In the event that Mr. Putin succeeds in subjugating Ukraine, there is reason to believe his next targets would include NATO front-line members that the United States is obligated by treaty to defend — not only with weapons but also with troops.
In the long term, Washington and its allies in the Group of Seven leading industrial nations — Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada and Japan — have agreed to formulate bilateral military support programs meant to arm Ukraine to the point that the Kremlin would be effectively discouraged from conducting future aggressive acts. That “porcupine strategy” is designed to deter Moscow’s imperial aspirations over time. Concrete plans are needed to fulfill that promise.
NATO membership for Ukraine, which would offer the ultimate security guarantee, is not in the cards as long as the war rages. Still, Ukraine’s allies should be weighing other postwar security arrangements. If and when the war ends, one template for Washington to consider is its commitment to South Korea, a nation that has prospered, to the benefit of the United States and the global community of free nations, through decades of hefty American security assistance. A similar approach might eventually promote stability in Eastern Europe.
Mr. Putin’s only hope for victory lies in ending Western aid for Ukraine, a goal he hopes Donald Trump would advance if he is elected to a second presidential term. History’s clear lesson is that rewarding such a dictator’s aggression will only invite more of the same. Part of laying the groundwork for a sustained commitment to Ukraine will be for Western leaders to explain to their voters why it is necessary.