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Why the West fears victory in Ukraine

Despite Ukraine’s heroic valor, the West is in serious danger of losing the war and, with it, the ensuing peace. The West risks losing for three specific but intertwined reasons: lack of a strategy, fear of victory and an unwillingness to campaign publicly for Ukraine’s victory.

Russia’s criminal aggression against Ukraine and military failures offers the West a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape European and international security. Therefore, it is increasingly urgent to take advantage of this opportunity.

Yet neither in Washington nor in any European capital west of Warsaw do we hear anyone advocating victory; the decisive defeat of Russia; full restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity; and Ukraine’s subsequent full integration into NATO and the European Union.

Public support for supporting Ukraine notwithstanding, leaders are privately increasingly skeptical that Ukraine can or apparently should win. Despite fulsome pledges of tanks, all we see is a trickle of them. The United States’s Abrams tanks will not even be available until 2024

Meanwhile the long-range artillery and aircraft Ukraine needs to win is withheld due to specious arguments about the training time needed, that other weapons are better suited for the task or – the real, but unspoken motive – fear of provoking Russia. 

Thus, the West’s protracted public dithering inhibited Kyiv from capitalizing on its 2022 offensive and allowed Russia time to mobilize new forces, build stronger defenses and even launch its own offensive.

Nevertheless, the recent anniversary of the war triggered an undeserved outburst of self-congratulation since timely provision of armaments may well have helped Ukraine inflict a decisive defeat upon Russia. Indeed, Kyiv might have to surrender Bakhmut and delay its spring offensive because the West cannot get its act together even after 13 months and send weapons it has already pledged.

Despite Putin’s oft-repeated intransigeance regarding negotiations and territorial conquests, this Western equivocation reflects an increasingly groundless fear of victory, which entails a genuine and long-lasting security and economic commitment to Ukraine and to holding Russia accountable. 

Although Western governments are increasingly discounting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threats, they remain unwilling to give Ukraine the military and economic support it needs. For example, Kyiv has received only 31 of the L64 billion pledged to it, and the sorry story of tank support is well known. Moreover, many experts still advocate negotiations yet have no idea how they could advance Ukraine’s security.

This fear of victory justifies Putin’s determination and belief that he can win by outlasting what he perceives as a decadent, effete adversary. Second it inhibits the formulation and prosecution of a resolute Western strategy. Third, it provides new opportunities for the claque of experts arguing, even in the mouth of Putin’s cannons, for negotiations. 

This advocacy disregards Putin’s refusal to negotiate, reveals a basic failure to grasp that Russian policy emerges from an entirely different cognitive milieu than does Western thinking, clutches at misconceived analogies to other wars and without saying so, manifests disdain if not contempt for Ukraine’s interests. Apart from assuming that a grinding war of attrition is the only possible outcome here (and advocating measures to ensure it stays that way), one of these experts contends that Ukraine faces either annihilation or continued Russian occupation of its territories.  

Other experts contend that Ukraine, not Russia, must be coerced to negotiate. And lying behind all of this argumentation is the misconceived notion that Russia cannot or should not be defeated, an utterly unfounded argument, but one that reflects an inexplicable but pervasive underlying fear of a Ukrainian victory.

Lastly, the failure to articulate a strategy both expresses and stimulates the division within domestic public opinion here and Europe. Normally, presidents campaign publicly and repeatedly to build support for major policy initiatives. Nothing of the sort has occurred here, leaving the door open to unflagging and often misinformed attacks on the cost of the aid to Ukraine and its supposedly not being in our vital interest.

Thus, it is no surprise that public support for Ukraine aid is falling among Republicans.

After all, nature abhors a vacuum. But the absence of a public White House campaign strongly suggests not just a neglect or disdain for such campaigning but also a worrisome and clearly long-running inability to fashion a strategy either internally or among the allies. That too would be another reason for the demands that Kyiv negotiate with Moscow.

These interactive deficiencies of Western policy have already delayed at least one Ukrainian offensive and may force postponement of others while giving Moscow a respite from the consequences of its own strategic incompetence in this war.

If we fail to ensure a Ukrainian victory, the history books will record our strategic incompetence and the entire world will have to suffer the consequences.

Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI). He is a former professor of Russian national security studies and national security affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College and a former MacArthur fellow at the U.S. Army War College. Blank is an independent consultant focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia.

Tags NATO Russia Russia-Ukraine war support for Ukraine Ukraine Ukraine invasion United States Vladimir Putin

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