While President Biden was declaring America’s commitment to freedom during his historic visit to Kyiv, China’s foreign minister was in Moscow. Whatever he was declaring China’s commitment to, it certainly was not freedom. Subsequent reports indicate that China may be preparing to sell Russia weapons for the first time.
Although the symbolism of President Biden’s show of support for the Ukrainians is powerful, he and much of the West still seem stuck in their dither-and-deliver approach to providing arms.
Almost a year after Russia launched its full-scale assault on Ukraine, western leaders finally agreed to send tanks to Ukraine. A similar pattern had slowed the delivery of medium-range artillery, air defense systems, and other necessary weapons. Nothing was achieved during these long delays except needlessly prolonging the war, wasting the lives of thousands more brave Ukrainians, and increasing the country’s destruction.
One would hope President Biden would have learned from these mistakes and move to giving Ukrainians the weapons they need to end Russia’s invasion. Yet when he was asked about sending fighter jets to help Ukrainians reclaim control of their skies, he responded that Ukraine does not need fighter jets now. The administration is expressing similar hesitation about longer-range missiles crucial for disrupting Russian supply lines. Not only are the president’s answers plainly incorrect — standard Western doctrine calls for using tanks and air power to support one another — it was applying the wrong criteria.
Our aid decisions should focus on what will help the Ukrainians end the war as quickly as possible.
The longer a war runs, the more people are harmed. Many tens of thousands of Jews murdered in the Holocaust—including Anne Frank—remained alive until a couple months before World War II ended; a faster advance against the crumbling Wehrmacht might have saved them. Had the US forced Japan to surrender a month earlier, before the Soviet Union entered the Pacific War, the ghastly North Korean regime might never have come into being. Fragile neutral governments in Cambodia and Laos survived the first six or seven years of the Vietnam War, but eventually US incursions destabilized them and led to murderous communist regimes.
Our dither-and-deliver approach has kept Ukraine from losing, but it has denied them the means to win. As a result, the war drags on, at a horrific cost to the Ukrainians.
Signs increasingly suggest that the war is spreading instability. Russian agitation has brought down the elected pro-Western government of neighboring Moldova. Several countries’ intelligence services report that a pro-Russian coup there may be imminent. Putin just renounced Russia’s recognition of Moldova’s sovereignty over parts of Moldovan territory Russia has occupied with “peacekeepers” since 1992.
So far, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko has resisted committing his own army to attacking Ukraine. Lukashenko owes his position to Russia’s support against popular uprisings after his fraudulent victory in the 2020 presidential elections. This gave Putin leverage to win permission to launch land and air attacks on Ukraine from Belarusian territory. He continues to pressure Lukashenko to join the fight directly, and the longer the war lasts, the greater the chance that Lukashenko will buckle.
As Russia has exhausted its supply of munitions, it has become increasingly dependent on the pariah regimes in Iran and North Korea. Both Russia and Iran have been coy about what Russia is doing for Iran in exchange for hundreds of suicide drones. We recently learned, however, that Iran has made a dramatic leap forward in its efforts to purify uranium to weapons-grade: It can now produce enough for a bomb in just 12 days.
We can only shudder at what Russia must be doing for North Korea in exchange for its artillery shells.
Russia’s continuing interference with Ukrainian grain shipments has driven up food prices and exacerbated hunger. A growing list of countries face bankruptcy.
If China begins supplying Russia with arms, the consequences could be far-reaching. That surely would signal a willingness to help Russia evade western sanctions designed to exhaust Russia’s capacity to fight. This would force the West to choose between acting on its threat to impose secondary sanctions on China or giving up on having a credible threat of sanctions in future conflicts. Without the ability to impose sanctions, more conflicts will be resolved through open warfare.
Russia’s only chance to win in Ukraine was to win quickly at the beginning of its invasion. Through a combination of arrogance, stupidity, and bad logistics, it lost that opportunity and its most effective fighting units. Since then, its massed artillery and human wave attacks have made incremental progress in a few areas, while superior leadership and morale have helped the Ukrainians reclaim three large swaths of conquered territory. The paltry gains, at staggering cost, Russia achieved in its recent offensive make clear its military machine is badly broken.
The Ukrainians now have two very different paths to success. One is to bleed the Russian army until it lacks the forces to hold the land it has seized. The Ukrainians did this in Soledar, forcing Russia to spend tens of thousands of lives to take a town substantially smaller than Coldwater, Mich. They are repeating the process in Bakhmut, a town far surpassed by Longmont, Colo., or Carmel, Ind. This approach will work, but it will take a considerable amount of time—as well as the waste of many Ukrainian (and Russian) lives.
The Ukrainians’ other option is to return to the lightning warfare that liberated Kharkiv late last summer. Once the Ukrainians punched through the frontlines, demoralized and badly led Russian troops cut and ran. The Ukrainians were stopped not by the Russians but by their own lack of enough tanks and other vehicles to keep their salient supplied. They killed many fewer Russians than they have in defending protracted sieges.
If the US and its allies abandon their nonsensical parsimony and give the Ukrainians what they need, this war could end quite quickly.
One quick thrust to Melitopol and a rocket strike on the Kerch Bridge would cut off supplies to Russian forces in the south and force their withdrawal. A resumption of mobility warfare in Luhansk could punch through lines manned by ill-trained draftees and quickly reclaim much of that province, dooming Putin’s dream of taking the Donbas industrial basin. Continuing the war at that point would only prolong his humiliation and threaten his hold on power.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping is apparently heading to Moscow. If he sees a resolute showing of Western resolve to give the Ukrainians what they need for a quick, relatively bloodless victory, he will not want to associate himself with a clear loser. He may then pressure Putin into a face-saving deal, perhaps withdrawing from Ukraine in exchange for Chinese security guarantees.
If the West continues its indecisiveness, however, Xi may try to prop up Putin’s crumbling war machine in exchange for Russia becoming a Chinese client state. That would extend the war, and its collateral damage, considerably, as well as compromising our long-term strategic interests.
David A. Super is the Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Law and Economics at Georgetown University Law Center. He also served for several years as the general counsel for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Follow him on Twitter @DavidASuper1