Glen Chafetz

Atlantic Council

Nov 4, 2023

The United States and other Western governments are arming Ukraine to defend it against Russian aggression, but only halfway.  The weapons and assistance the West provides will not allow Ukraine to recover its lost territory and defeat Vladimir Putin’s army. For that, Ukraine will require advanced combat aircraft, tanks and armored personnel carriers, multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS), sustained funding and logistical support, and other weaponry.  Without these, Ukraine will bleed and starve until it can no longer fight.

The arguments against providing this assistance rest on two flawed assumptions: (1) providing those weapons will cross a red line and provoke Putin to risk nuclear war; and (2) the United States needs a workable relationship with Russia.

The first assumption ignores the logic of nuclear war, as well as Putin’s needs and history. Putin is homicidal, not suicidal. Using nuclear weapons risks uncontrolled escalation that could mean the certain end of his regime, and of Russia itself. That is not a risk he is willing to take. Russia’s “escalate to deescalate” doctrine – essentially nuclear saber rattling to forestall western intervention – has proven successful due to fear and irresolution on the part of US and European leaders. For decades, nuclear deterrence has proven to be both stable and lasting. We have invested trillions in our nuclear systems and capabilities.  Why have we now lost faith in its efficacy and durability?

Putin gambled on the invasion of Ukraine because he believed Ukrainian democracy constitutes an existential threat to Putin’s power in Russia, and because he doubted that NATO would intervene. But that is a threat he has lived with since he took power two decades ago. Before the full-scale invasion of last February, Putin poisoned Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko; turned off Ukraine’s gas supply in the middle of winter; conducted multiple cyber-attacks; invaded and occupied Crimea; and waged a war of attrition in Donetsk and Luhansk. None of those efforts succeeded in destroying Ukrainian independence. Yes, Ukraine’s persistence and American assistance infuriate Putin, but fury does not translate into suicide, and both Ukraine and the West can live with Putin’s fury indefinitely. Ukraine, however, cannot survive an indefinite war.

The second assumption, that we need a workable relationship with Russia and that this imperative must transcend Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty,  is also flawed. What exactly does the West need from Russia? Where does Russia cooperate with the United States now? In the UN Security Council? Not for decades. Counter-terrorism? That was always a myth. Putin defines as terrorists anyone and any organization that opposes his murderous regime. Trade? Before the invasion, Russia was our 26th largest trading partner, while Russian markets

accounted for only 4% of European exports. This trickle hardly represents an irreplaceable or invaluable relationship. Moreover, it is impossible to cooperate with an interlocutor who defines his success by our failures. Put another way, we cannot play a positive sum game with a partner who plays zero-sum.

For years now, European leaders have implored us to “talk to Russia,” as though persistent pleading might ameliorate Russian intransigence and aggression. US academics and Russian “experts” repeated the chorus. Years of negotiations in the Minsk I and II talks did not bring peace; on the contrary, they set the stage for invasion and occupation. By now it should be clear that Putin does not want economic integration, a relaxation of tensions or a constructive relationship with the West. He wants to restore Russian greatness and the Russian empire. That requires confrontation and conflict.

Here, there is no offramp; Ukraine will not be secure from Putin’s menace until all Russian troops have left every inch of sovereign Ukrainian territory. That will not happen by negotiation or bargaining or trade-offs. It will happen when the Ukrainian people reclaim their land and sovereignty by force. Moreover, this war is about more than Ukraine. Putin has called into question the sovereignty of the three Baltic States, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Moldova. The United States should make clear that consistent with the Charter of the UN and international law, it supports the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all states, including Russia. We expect Russia to do the same, and to suffer consequences when it does not.


Glen Chafetz recently retired as a member of the Senior Intelligence Service.  He is a Russian linguist and holds a doctorate from the University of Virginia in Russian studies. R.D. Hooker, Jr. was formerly Dean of the NATO Defense College and Senior Director for Russia and Europe at the National Security Council.