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Against Russia, Ukraine will lose a war of attrition

As Russia’s war on Ukraine staggers into sixth month, Ukraine is on the verge of a key shift in strategy. And belatedly, President Biden is providing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy with some of the weapons he so desperately needs to implement it. 

Until recently, Ukraine’s military has been sustaining devastating losses trying to thwart the Russian onslaught in the Donbas, the eastern part of the country. Fighting bloody and ultimately losing battles in the streets of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, Ukrainian forces were unable to halt the Russian onslaught there. Russian troops occupied both cities. 

Although Russia’s casualties were said to be higher than Ukraine’s, Zelenskyy estimated that 60-100 Ukrainian soldiers were dying each day in the fighting. Other analysts put Ukrainian casualties even higher. 

Finally, Zelenskyy acknowledged that trying to hold onto what he called “dead cities” against overwhelming Russian force was futile. Ukrainian forces withdrew. 

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But Zelenskyy also recognizes political reality: if the war continues to descend into a stalemate, or what New York Times columnist Tom Friedman called a grinding, “somewhat boring slog,” Ukraine will lose. 

Given Russia’s size and strength, Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas, and the fecklessness of China, Indonesia, and the indifference of these and other states to Russia’s brutal aggression, a war of attrition would inevitably be Ukraine’s downfall and President Vladimir Putin’s victory. It has taken Zelenskyy months, however, to persuade Biden to provide him with the type and supply of weapons he needs to take the offensive and expel Russian forces from Ukraine’s territory. 

Ukraine’s counteroffensive in southern Kherson, which Russian forces have occupied since early in the war, has now begun. Make no mistake: It must succeed if this egregious war is to end.

“The longer this war goes on, the worse it will be Ukraine,” said retired Gen. Jack Keane, the U.S Army’s former vice chief of staff and chairman of the Institute for the Study of War, which tracks Ukraine closely. “Time is not on Ukraine’s side.” 

President Biden should be praised for having immediately condemned Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine last February, for having led the campaign to support and arm Ukraine, and for having held together the fractious coalition of European Union and NATO member states whose economic sanctions and other anti-Russian measures are vital if Putin’s ruthless war of aggression is to fail. 

But the president has also walked a political tightrope – balancing his desire to help Ukraine defend itself “for as long as it takes,” on one hand, but, on the other, avoid the escalation of a conflict that he has warned could result in World War III.

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So while the Biden administration began providing Ukraine in June a limited number of M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems – long-range missiles known as HIMARS – it has barred Kyiv from firing into Russian territory, no matter how grave the provocation. And because he fears provoking Putin, Biden has also refused to provide Army Tactical Missile Systems, with a range of over 190 miles, the longest-range missiles in Army inventory, which Ukraine has frequently requested. “These missiles would be well suited for attacks inside Russia,” said Keane, who supports their provision to Kyiv. 

Other domestic and foreign analysts have also criticized Biden’s restrictions. “The unfortunate conclusion to draw is that we in the West are telling Russia, ‘It’s OK for you to shoot from Belarus into Ukraine. It’s OK for you to shoot from Russia. But it’s not OK for Ukraine to shoot back into Russia,’” said Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, the retired supreme allied commander for Europe, at a recent virtual national security forum. 

Ukraine needs such restrictions lifted. It needs to change the so-called rules of engagement in this brutal conflict if Kyiv and its Western allies are to prevail. 

Pressure is growing from such prominent analysts as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and such American allies as French President Emmanuel Macron to give Putin a diplomatic “off-ramp” to end the war. 

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Zelenskyy has vowed to continue fighting rather than cede an inch of Ukrainian territory to Russia. But, increasingly, he is being pushed to stop trying to reclaim parts of the Donbas that Russian forces have conquered since February and abandon his claim to Crimea and territory in the Donbas that Putin seized in 2014. American legislators are quietly (and not so quietly) beginning to grouse about the more than $7.6 billion in security assistance and over $33 billion in aid that Biden and the Congress have given Kyiv.

In a recent essay in the Wall Street Journal, Jacquelyn Schneider, a Hoover fellow at Stanford University, warned that Washington was already depleting the stockpile of its own so-called legacy weapons systems, like versions of the antitank Javelin and antiaircraft Stinger missiles. 

The U.S. already gave a third of its Javelin arsenal and a quarter of its U.S. Stingers to Ukraine in the first four months of the war. Washington will soon be unable to continue supplying Ukraine at this pace without “significant reforms to its defense acquisition and production policies,” Schneider writes. But given the gridlock and hyper partisanship on Capitol Hill, as well as resistance to change at the Pentagon, how likely is such reform? 

For how long will Africans deprived of Ukrainian grain be willing to starve for Ukraine, or Germans be prepared to lower their thermostats this winter? Much is at stake in Zelenskyy’s defense of Ukraine. But if the political will to support him erodes in Washington after the November election and among Western allies as winter descends, Ukraine will be unable to continue defending itself and the post-World War II order. 

President Biden must do more to support Zelenskyy’s counteroffensive while there is still time. 

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