One year ago on Feb. 24, the first major conflict between the world’s autocracies and democracies began with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Fortunately, a unified West pushed back against Vladimir Putin’s murderous assault, marking an historical moment when we stood on principle.
The war has since been a failure for Moscow in multiple ways. Notably is the Russian military’s incompetence, exposed by the skill, courage and tenacity of much smaller Ukrainian forces that not only denied Putin a quick victory, but also demonstrated the ability of a determined people to beat back a larger foe – an important lesson for China and Taiwan.
The war has stalemated since Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive last fall. It cannot be allowed to harden into another “frozen conflict.” As such, we should pause on this gruesome anniversary to assess how best to facilitate victory for Kyiv and send the right signals to Moscow (and Beijing).
Western unity has proven the most important factor in hampering Russia’s war effort and enabling Ukraine’s. The U.S. has done a good job keeping the allies together and moving forward. This must be sustained. But what is lacking is a clear sense of how Washington wants this conflict to end and then resourcing that outcome.
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Regarding the former, we should follow the lead of Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who said Russia must completely leave his country, including Crimea. That may be difficult for Moscow to accept, but we should not allow Putin’s saber rattling to deter us. A year of his bluster has proven fears of escalation to be overblown.
On the latter, while U.S. support has been strong, the Biden administration has been frustratingly late in providing Kyiv what it needs. Weapons systems like HIMARS, Patriots and now Abrams tanks, arrive long after Ukraine suffers needlessly. We seem to be doing just enough to prevent a Ukrainian loss, but not nearly enough to enable a Ukrainian win.
Zelenskyy has long asked for ATACMS. Now he is seeking modern fighter jets – critical to supporting a counteroffensive – but once again Washington begins with “No.”
Why not start training Ukrainians on F-16s now, or assembling a volunteer cadre of former pilots and maintainers, pending a final decision that is likely to be approved anyway? Ukraine can’t afford to get pummeled for months awaiting aircraft, much like they are now desperate for tanks as a Russian offensive slowly begins.
Other actions should be taken to tighten the noose on Putin and signal our resolve, such as stiffening sanctions on Russia and those who aid them. Additionally, all our allies – not just a stalwart few – should contribute their fair share to the war effort. It’s time for everyone to step up.
Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Erdogan has played domestic politics, demanding unreasonable concessions, over NATO accession for Finland and Sweden – two democracies that would clearly enhance the alliance. Biden needs to turn up the heat on his dubious counterpart.
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After all, we need a robust and ready NATO to not only empower Ukraine, but to deter Russian misadventures elsewhere, while also dissuading China from acting against Taiwan. An alliance-wide agreement to spend no less than 2% of GDP on defense – something I long advocated – would underscore our resolve.
Time is not on Ukraine’s side. Every passing day is another opportunity for Western support to weaken or fracture. Putin is counting on it. Moreover, before Russia can adapt to global sanctions and rebuild its forces, we must give Kyiv the means to win quickly and decisively. This makes many uneasy, but Ukraine’s future is on the line, and Beijing is taking notes.
Importantly, the U.S. must continue to lead. This means keeping the West unified and less self-deterred; surging the defense industrial base for the global long haul; and providing continued assistance, all properly accounted for, to Kyiv.
Frequent messaging at home, framed in the broader strategic contest at hand, is important to sustain public support and congressional funding. And finally, we should push similar support to Taiwan now, before Beijing acts.
This all comes at some expense, for sure, but deterring war is less costly than fighting one, and winning costs less than losing. But defending freedom against autocracies like Russia and China that only respect strength, will keep us all safer in the long run. History has taught us both lessons time and again; let’s heed them and act.