Increase support for Ukraine, or NATO may have to fight
President Biden summed up the results of discussions concerning support for Ukraine at the late June NATO summit this way: “We are going to stick with Ukraine, and all of the Alliance is going to stick with Ukraine, as long as it takes, to make sure they are not defeated by Russia.” The U.S. and NATO didn’t seek this situation but we are in it. Nobody wants a war with Russia, but we are in too deep to get out now and must see this to the end.
Russian propaganda aside, Ukraine did nothing to provoke Russia’s attack. This is nothing less than an attempt by Vladimir Putin, who evidently considers himself the reincarnation of Peter the Great, to recreate the Russian Empire.
With strong U.S. leadership, NATO is rejuvenated and doing a good job of providing Ukraine heavier and more modern weapons to defend against a more powerful Russian army. But after four months of war, the consequences are starting to spill over into the larger global community. Rising prices at the gas pump, soaring inflation, and food shortages in some regions from a Russian blockade that prevents the export of Ukrainian crops, are causing pundits to suggest it’s time for Ukraine to seek a negotiated settlement — even if Ukraine had to cede a substantial part of the country to the invader.
Others continue to speculate whether Western unity, which is key to helping Ukraine resist aggression, might begin to fracture. Gas is costing us more and our investments are not doing well, so let’s force the victim of naked aggression to call it quits. But as Biden has stated, it is up to the Ukrainians to decide their fate.
In reality, Ukraine is fighting our war, too, because if Putin is successful in dominating or absorbing all of Ukraine into Russia — which still appears to be his goal — he then will turn on other former members of the defunct Soviet Union and Russia-dominated Warsaw Pact, some of whom are now members of NATO. Thousands of Ukrainians are dying while fighting for the same freedom and sovereignty that the American colonies sought in 1776. As Benjamin Franklin reportedly said then about the need for unity: “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”
But, thus far, the U.S. and NATO have been self-deterred when deciding what type of support to provide Ukraine: Artillery yes, but not with ranges long enough to hit targets on Russian territory where Russian logistics bases have sanctuary. Old Russian fighters from former Warsaw Pact members are OK, but no modern fighters because Putin might consider this “escalatory.” But as Biden himself is fond of saying, “Come on.” The Ukrainians deserve our full support to prevent their defeat, no matter what it takes.
And let’s end the slow dribbling of sanctions on Russia. Sanctions take time to work, and they are starting to have an impact on the Russian economy. But doling out another one or two after each outrageous Russian action just gives Russia time to adapt. If any Russian banks or major corporations that support the Russian military have not been sanctioned yet, let’s do it now. Sanctions can impact the Russian army’s ability to obtain repair parts and force them to take older and less capable equipment out of storage. So, while Ukraine is getting a steady stream of modern equipment from the West, Russia is resorting to outdated equipment.
Gen. Andrew J. Goodpaster, a former Supreme Allied Commander Europe and superintendent of West Point, advised three American presidents on national security issues. He once responded to a question from a confused cadet who pointed out that most of the situations being discussed had several variables and there always seemed to be two or three sides to the issue. “How do you decide what decision to make?” Goodpaster replied, “I just ask myself what is best for my country.”
In the Ukraine/Russia conflict, one must determine the one thing that either must or must not happen to establish a guidepost for making hard decisions. It’s a bad situation, to be sure, but here’s the bottom line: The one thing that must not happen is allowing Putin to come away as the perceived winner. If that happens, the rules-based global order that has kept the peace among the major powers since World War II will be mortally wounded. Europe will be destabilized for the indefinite future and NATO likely will be forced to defend one or more of its members. So, we need to do whatever is necessary to ensure that Putin has made a colossal mistake.
This is a fight the U.S. and Europe cannot allow Ukraine to lose. The best chance to avoid direct NATO conflict with Russia is to stop being self-deterred by measuring every decision against whether or not Putin will consider it to be escalatory, and provide Ukraine with the capabilities it needs to defeat this Russian invasion. Putin can rattle his nuclear saber but no matter how bad his situation becomes at the conventional level, it won’t be improved by using nuclear weapons.
Ultimately, NATO may have to fight — if not now to save Ukraine, then later to save itself.
John Fairlamb, Ph.D., is a retired Army colonel who served for 45 years as a commissioned officer and Department of the Army civilian in various Joint Service positions formulating and implementing national security strategies and policies. His doctorate is in comparative defense policy analysis.