Russia must be stopped. That cannot be done by the US slow-walking the military aid that Ukrainians have been pleading for — self-propelled artillery, aircraft, armor, mobile air defense, and multiple-launch rockets. Without this equipment, Russia wins. Then what?
It is true that Slovakia has provided an S-300 air defense system and that the Czechs and (reportedly) the Poles will together send more than 100 T-72 tanks. Sweden will send modernized armored vehicles, as will the UK and Australia.
But large quantities of big-ticket items like combat aircraft and other advanced weaponry have been deemed provocative and escalatory by the Biden administration, which fears they might trigger a wider war, possibly even leading to World War III. (There were signals on April 13 that the administration may provide some heavy weaponry including howitzers, though it’s questionable whether the discussed items meet Ukraine’s enormous needs.)
This is paralysis passing for prudence. It recycles the very psychology that has brought us to this point. It also undercuts our credibility within NATO and around the globe. By surrendering the initiative to the nuclear-armed aggressor, it makes a wider war more likely, both with Russia and with China.
The US sanctions imposed to date impact Russia more than a 30-year-old MiG-29 jet. Putin has already declared their imposition as an “act of war.” But Russia’s military doctrine does not contemplate “escalating [to use of nuclear weaponry] to de-escalate,” absent an invasion of Russia or an existential threat.
The problem runs even deeper. The meaning of “provocation” are mirror opposites to the West and to Putin. While the worried West may consider its actions a provocation, they would actually be seen by Putin as a red light. In 2018, US air assets decimated a combined Russian Wagner Group/Syrian assault against an American compound in Syria, killing an estimated 200-300. In 2015 Turkey, a NATO member, shot down a Russian Su-24 using an American-made F-16, when it strayed into Turkish airspace—and Russia was not waging war against Turkey. Putin kept mum in both cases.
Contrariwise, a US avoidance of what we consider a provocation is for Putin yet another affirmation of our self-deterrence. It emboldens Russia’s leader, fueling his contempt for a risk-averse West and reducing his risk calculus. That, in turn, increases the risk of precisely what we seek to avoid. We then retreat still further, and Putin advances into the vacated ground. It becomes a self-catalyzing chemical reaction. We, as much as Putin, weaponize his threat of nuclear Mutual Assured Destruction as a one-way street against ourselves.
The US is perpetuating the mindset that contributed to the disaster in Ukraine today. It has been that way for years. The fear of “provoking Russia” and the handwringing, foot shuffling, and throat clearing are the hallmarks of our dealings with a ruthless Kremlin adept at finely judging weakness in the enemy.
Sanctions have been our moral balm. What’s the message when the US suppresses news of a successful test of a hypersonic missile to avoid “escalating tensions,” as President Biden was about to travel to Europe in March?
Deterrence that comes with the concrete manifestation of will through the delivery of heavy weaponry always carries risk. But no act of deterrence is all risk. The consequence of our self-deterrence signals a likely future capitulation to a possible Russian ultimatum that we cease all aid. It means that a Russian invasion of Finland, were it to have the capacity to do so, would be met with no stronger response than in Ukraine. It means that any aggression by China, Iran, or North Korea will be resisted . . . but only up to a point. A nuclear state can blackmail the world as it wages war against a non-nuclear state. This is not strategy or logic or prudence. It is a self-addressed invitation to extinction.
The administration’s repeated emphasis on a sacred obligation to defend every inch of NATO territory ignores Putin’s stated war aims — he has been clear that this is simultaneously a war against the US and NATO. Recall that the springboard to the expanded invasion in February was his December 17 ultimatum that the US outsource our security to the Kremlin and that NATO self-destruct.
NATO members’ obligations are not spelled out explicitly in the text of Article 5, requiring only “such action as it deems necessary.” It is rather each member’s interpretation, their recognition that if Article 5 loses its assumed meaning, the alliance’s credibility crumbles. Credibility and self-interest are — or should be — also the driver of our aid to non-NATO members. The absence of a NATO obligation cannot be sufficient reason to deny weaponry to a friendly state fighting for its life. Only by helping do we make the point that NATO is willing to pay (a partial) price to deter.
How does Russia – and other foes — assess our resolve given our failure to supply sufficient heavy weaponry to Ukraine? And what is our obligation, given
- that Ukraine’s reclamation of its independence in 1991 drove the nail into the coffin of the USSR, so ending the Cold War;
- that in 1994 Ukraine surrendered to Russia, after US hectoring, the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal in exchange for security assurances from Russia, the US, and the UK; and
- that restoring Ukrainian sovereignty would help our non-proliferation efforts globally?
We also would redeem, albeit in the 11th hour, the fateful decision in 1991 to promote Russia as the pre-eminent economic and military legatee of the USSR.
A prescient US Navy study in 1993 warned that:
“Regenerating Russia as the superpower successor to the Soviet Union will be a threat to the security of Ukraine and Europe. The United States will have assisted in creating a regime that is a serious threat to the democratic community of states. The willingness to allow Russia to become the sole nuclear and economic power to emerge from the Soviet Union is a dangerous prospect for Western security. Were Russia to embark on a campaign to reconstitute, what options would the West have? Ukraine provides the United States with a potential regional counterweight to Russian territorial expansion.”
A Russian victory — no matter how defined — would be a disastrous signal. It would reopen the door to the horrors of the 20th century when mass-murdering tyrants re-made borders and extinguished countries at will. The settlement of 1945 was a US settlement and at its heart was Rule #1: no territorial conquest.
The state-owned Russian official press agency RIA Novosti published on April 4 a rambling 2,400-word article by the pro-government journalist Timofey Sergeytsev, denouncing the Ukrainian state and all those citizens who supported independence (polls record that number as over 90%), promising its “denazification” over several generations and its dissolution into “people’s republics,” along with the elimination of the Ukrainian elite. Russia will oversee this process alone because the dissolution of Ukraine “is a purely Russian business.” It’s a genocide handbook, “an explicit program for the complete elimination of the Ukrainian nation as such,” as Timothy Snyder wrote. Ever since 1945, we have repeated the phrase “Never again” and yet this is what we now face.
Against such monumental precedents and consequences, denying heavy weaponry to Ukraine neuters our deterrence credibility no less than a walk-away from our obligation to a NATO member, e.g., Luxembourg. The risk of “escalation,” whether through the transfer of such weaponry or remaining faithful to Article 5, are conceptually identical.
At this moment, the US is deterred. NATO is deterred. Putin is not. Denying necessary aid to Ukraine is folly precisely because the denial is many orders of magnitude a greater “provocation” than what emboldened Russia to attack our forces in Syria.
Without resolve and sagacity, we open the way to an enemy victory over a free people, erase the titanic sacrifices of World War II, and make more likely a descent to a new world war. The window is closing. Fast.
Victor Rud is past Chairman of the Ukrainian American Bar Association and now chairs its Committee on Foreign Affairs. He is a graduate of Harvard College and Duke University Law School.
This is an edited version of a speech Mr Rud gave at the US Military Academy, West Point, earlier this month.