As we approach the first anniversary of Russia’s brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, two ominous trends are emerging at once. First, Russia is doubling down. It’s pouring fresh troops into Ukraine and launching new offensive operations.
Second, poll after poll after poll demonstrate that American support for Ukraine is slipping away. While Americans have sympathy for Ukraine, declining percentages are willing to spend American resources to keep Ukraine in the fight.
Yet the outcome of the war is simply too important — to America as well as Ukraine — to allow our support to falter. On the war’s anniversary it’s time for a concerted effort to persuade Americans of a single idea: We should support Ukraine as much as it takes, as long as it takes, until the Russian military suffers a decisive, unmistakable defeat.
Instead, domestic agreement is fraying, As The Washington Post reported last week, the Biden administration is telling Ukraine there are no guarantees of future support, and it’s “raising the pressure” on Ukraine “to make significant gains on the battlefield” in the short term, while Western aid still flows.
According to The Post, the administration is even qualifying the meaning of President Biden’s State of the Union pledge to support Ukraine “as long as it takes.” It quotes an administration official saying, “‘As long as it takes’ pertains to the amount of conflict,” but “it doesn’t pertain to the amount of assistance.”
This is a dangerous notion. Despite the remarkable success of the Ukrainian military thus far, pushing Ukraine to mount a premature offensive could have catastrophic results. It will take time for Ukraine to receive the deliveries of advanced Western tanks, for example. And deploying those tanks before Ukrainian soldiers are fully trained and before Ukraine has a maintenance infrastructure in place could result in unacceptable losses and squandered resources.
Compounding the challenge, the modest numbers of new Western weapons may not be enough to decisively break Russian lines, especially given that Russia has had time to build an “immense” network of fortifications in the Donbas region. Ukraine needs both quality and quantity to defeat the Russian military, and while dribbling small numbers of tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and other weapons into the fight is much better than nothing, it is likely far short of adequate for the demands of combat on this scale. Ukraine, after all, is confronting one of the world’s great powers — even if it is not quite as great as we may have believed a year ago.
Rather than press Ukraine to undertake offensive operations, the administration and Democratic and Republican congressional allies must impress upon the American public the extraordinary high stakes for America in the outcome of a war fought so many thousands of miles from our shores.
One of the miracles of modern life is that it’s been generations since the great powers have gone to war against one another. The humanitarian catastrophes of the first two world wars are the stuff of history books for everyone but the last surviving veterans of World War II. But those same history books teach us that large-scale European conflicts implicate vital American interests and draw Americans into deadly conflict. There is no better way to prevent American men and women from dying in European battlefields than helping Ukraine defeat Russia and thereby deterring a general European war.
What more, if Russia defeats Ukraine, a dangerous precedent will be set. Nuclear-armed powers will prove they can invade smaller foes and then rattle the nuclear saber to deter an effective response, creating a one-way ratchet toward territorial aggression. Ironically enough, the effort to placate Russia to avoid escalation is likely to result in more aggression from nuclear-armed foes.
Moreover, if Russia ultimately defeats Ukraine, Vladimir Putin will have a message for his people: Russia confronted Ukraine and NATO, and Russia won. Russian victory will have a galvanizing impact on illiberal and authoritarian movements in the West. Western retreat from a winnable war will prove in many quarters the Russian critique of the “woke” West, that it is simply too self-indulgent, decadent and individualistic to survive and thrive.
Make no mistake, this is a winnable war. Yes, Ukraine alone cannot withstand Russia over the long term. It lacks the personnel and the industrial base. But American industrial output dwarfs Russia’s, and our superior arms can help address the personnel gap. Better weapons can overcome the challenge of fewer people. America, the arsenal of democracy, has the capacity to help Ukraine win even a long fight. The question is whether we have the will.
American defenders of Ukraine will have to make their case, repeatedly, persuasively, and firmly. They’ll have to overcome not only the natural reluctance of the American people to spend large sums abroad when there are undeniable problems at home, but also a vicious and vitriolic new right that hates the Ukrainian cause, and is spewing that hatred to an audience millions strong.
Consider these words, from prominent right-wing Americans, when President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine addressed Congress last December. Tucker Carlson of Fox News derided Zelensky for wearing fatigues in the Capitol, saying he “dressed like the manager of a strip club.” The popular right-wing podcaster Candace Owens said, “I just want to punch him” in response to a video of Zelensky thanking Americans for their support. Not to be outdone, Donald Trump Jr. called Zelensky an “international welfare queen.”
Insults are not arguments. But insults can be answered by arguments. And the argument for defeating Russian aggression, destroying the offensive capability of the Russian military, and thereby potentially deterring future aggression in Ukraine and beyond, are overwhelming. Ukraine needs American aid to win its war, and America can help Ukraine win while expending a fraction of the cost of the American defense budget.
In 1990, as the United States and its allies mobilized their militaries to respond to Saddam Hussein’s brutal and unprovoked invasion of Kuwait, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain told President George H.W. Bush, “This is no time to go wobbly.” At that moment, American troops and American treasure were on the line. Now only American treasure is at stake. But the same words apply — they apply to President Biden, to Congress, and, crucially, to the American people. This is no time to go wobbly.
It’s awful to say this about any war, given the horrific loss of life, but this one is winnable. And Russian aggression cannot prevail.
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