The moral and strategic importance of a Ukrainian victory seems hard to overstate. A protracted, frozen conflict would be a humanitarian disaster for Ukrainian civilians in Russian occupied areas and war zones, it would lead to continued slaughter of troops on both sides, it would strip Ukraine of critical ports, it would embolden further adventurism by Russia and by China against Taiwan. An extended war might cause or contribute to a worldwide recession. Domestically, stalemate and economic stress would damage Biden’s re-election prospects. Finally, a victory by Russia would damage the confidence of democratic countries and the reputation of liberal democracy around the world, at a time when democracy is very much at risk. A victory by Ukraine would do the opposite.
Victory by Ukraine seems likely but by no means is it assured. Offense is harder than defense, and with its past losses Russia is now defending much shorter lines. Putin seems to be willing to put all his chips on the table. It’s hard to know how truthful Ukraine is being about its supplies of ammunition, but it seems like there are grounds for concern. Faltering support from the United States is still the biggest risk to Ukraine. Although support is holding up so far, it would be a mistake to assume it will last indefinitely. We need to strike while the iron is hot. The risk of failure is too great to settle for half measures.
So what should we do? Many observers are calling for the U.S. and its allies to send more weapons to Ukraine as quickly as possible. Mark Hertling wisely reminds us that our political and military leaders have much more information than we do about a wide range of issues, especially the logistical challenges of delivering and integrating new weapons systems into the Ukrainian army. His warnings are well taken, but it seems clear (i.e., at least in the case of ATACMS) that we are holding back weapons delivers in part for strategic reasons – fear of provoking Russia, or the need to retain our own stocks.
I’m no expert, but this seems misguided to me, given the stakes outlined above.
I also believe that President Biden should give a major speech declaring in a matter-of-fact way that Russia has lost the war, that Ukraine is not a threat to Russia, and that the longer Russia waits to recognize this the more Russian soldiers will die and the more Russian civilians and the Russian economy will suffer. It’s difficult to know how far such a speech will seep behind the Russian information curtain, but it may help Ukraine with its information war. In addition, Putin seems worried about his political standing and a clear speech by Biden combined with accelerated arms deliveries may help convince Putin that it’s time to quit.