Time to shift strategies: We must do more to aid Ukraine

War is dynamic, a contest of wills between warring parties, each of which is fighting to achieve its political objectives and thwart its enemy. War reveals vulnerabilities not apparent when it begins, and opportunities absent at the start. Momentum shifts. Strategies should shift accordingly. This is where we are with the war in Ukraine today. 

When Russian President Vladimir Putin started his illegal war to conquer and subjugate Ukraine, in his mind, Russia would quickly defeat the Ukrainian military and, thereby, the nation’s will to fight. That didn’t happen. Ukraine resisted, showing weaknesses in the Russian military machine. And global sanctions reduced Russia’s ability to fund the war. The result: stalemate.  Russia has lost tactical momentum. Now Ukraine must seize it.   

Two opportunities emerged. The stalemate allowed Ukraine to go on the offensive — local counterattacks and maybe a more general counter-offensive. And it provided an opportunity for the Allies to shift strategy.

{mosads}Ukraine has begun local counterattacks. More aid will help increase the number and duration of these counterattacks. All this is good, but it won’t produce operational effects. That is, local counterattacks can prevent further Russian advances, but they are unlikely to result in Ukraine seizing the momentum and ejecting Russian forces. For this, they’ll need more. Why?

First, timing. The promised aid must become actual military capability. Allocated U.S. money must be spent; items purchased and then amassed, shipped, moved and offloaded in theater; and then repackaged and loaded onto transport into Ukraine; distributed within the country; and delivered to fighting units. These processes operate at the speed of multiple bureaucracies — not fast enough. At best, Ukrainian fighting units will receive the aid in weeks, likely longer.  Ukraine’s opportunity to seize the momentum may pass, but Russian indiscriminate attacks and sieges will continue. 

Second, physical force. The West’s aid is enough to prevent the Russians from winning and will help set conditions for a counter-offensive, but it’s likely not enough to conduct one. Russian forces are down, but they’re not out. They have to be knocked out with the military equivalent of a KO or TKO. But counter-offensive operations are generally air-ground operations. The Ukraine air force is unable to clear Russian fighters from the sky while supporting a ground offensive.  Thus, Ukrainian forces are unlikely to achieve the necessary knock-out blow if the Allies don’t shift strategies.    

The second opportunity is one for the Allies. At the start of the war, the Allies rightfully were fearful about widening the conventional war or escalating to the nuclear level. That risk calculus has changed.

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Putin’s conventional forces, unable to defeat Ukraine’s military, cannot widen the war. They could deliver conventional fires or conduct limited air strikes across NATO borders, and that would be bad. But Russia simply can’t do much more. NATO could further reinforce its eastern flank with more artillery, long-range rockets, counter-battery capability, and air defense systems.  It also could increase the level of readiness and position of its air forces, and then tell Putin that if he chooses to attack, NATO will destroy any forces participating in it. 

Further, the Allies should immediately establish temporary, local restrictive airspace zones to ensure protected delivery of humanitarian aid, initially at least into western Ukraine. NATO should declare that interference with the delivery of humanitarian assistance for the durations and locations specified will be met by force. Such action is not a provocation, and Allied leaders should not allow Putin to say it is. Then, when the time is right and if necessary, the Allies would have options to expand to other areas, thus keeping humanitarian aid flowing, or consider other missions.     

The risk of escalation is more serious. But the Allies could place their nuclear forces at increased readiness levels. Putin does not want to cross this threshold any more than the Allies. But so far, he only sees the Allies staying behind their own red line, while he is threatening to cross it. The West should begin acting on its convictions and capabilities, not its fears. The sanctions on Russia already have changed the dynamic in Moscow. The Allies can increase pressure on Putin by strengthening their nuclear position. This course has risks, but so does the current course:  providing support to protract the fight, but not enough to end it.   

This is the strategy-shifting conversation that should occur in Brussels this week.

International community support for this strategic shift seems to have emerged. The U.N. General Assembly’s non-binding resolution of March 2, passed by a 73 percent majority, demanding that Russia “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces,” clearly expresses the will of the international community. On March 16, the World Court ruled, in a 13-2 decision, that “the Russian Federation shall immediately suspend the military operations.” And the U.N. Human Rights Council also is decidedly against Putin’s illegal actions.

Further, the Ukraine crisis begs broader, fundamental questions: Is national self-determination worth fighting for? Are political sovereignty and territorial integrity principles worth defending?  Is a world where those that have the power to do what they want and those without suffer what they must a world worth preventing? These are not academic questions; they’re real. No speech will answer them; the West’s actions will.   

{mossecondads}Other political leaders have faced these questions, answered affirmatively, and accepted the risks.  In his first address to the House of Commons, Prime Minister Winston Churchill stared at a possible Nazi invasion of England and declared “victory, however long and hard the road may be.” The U.S. fought several battles with German U-boats while escorting shipping in the northwest Atlantic before America became belligerent — a huge risk for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. But the stakes warranted the risks. So, too, with President Harry Truman when he ordered the Berlin Airlift and waged the Korean War. And with President John Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  

Ukraine differs from these historical examples. But they all rhyme. It’s time for the current leadership to explain to their citizens the importance of stopping Putin.

If Putin can withstand the pressure of the sanctions and continue escalating indiscriminate attacks while the West continues its current approach, Ukraine may be destroyed. This is the inherent risk in the current, gradualist approach. If this happens, Western leaders will tell themselves, “We did all we could; we won’t let that happen ever again.” But such a claim has little deterrent value, for it is based on taking counsel of fear — something other nuclear armed authoritative governments will see clearly, even if Western political leaders don’t.

James M. Dubik, Ph.D., a retired lieutenant general of the U.S. Army, is a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War. He served in military command and operational roles in Bosnia, Haiti and Iraq, and helped train forces in Afghanistan, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Honduras, and many NATO countries.

Tags John Kennedy military assistance NATO Russian invasion of Ukraine Ukrainian crisis Vladimir Putin

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