Speaking just ahead of the first anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Western leaders at the Munich Security Conference voiced a commitment to Ukraine “for as long as it takes” (although no one says what “it” is.) President Biden echoed the phrase in Kyiv.
And yet there seems to be a growing sense of satisfaction in the West that as a result of Western military aid over the past year, Ukraine has survived. There is a glow of accomplishment — that despite initial fears Ukraine would be defeated within days, now, after a year of Western support, Ukraine is standing strong.
Of course, this is true. Ukraine is standing strong, thanks to Western support and the indomitable spirit of the Ukrainian people. But the tone of satisfaction is dangerous: it reflects a failure to appreciate the urgency of the situation, a failure to learn from mistakes made over the past year, and a failure to answer some very tough questions about the future.
As for the immediate situation on the ground, Russia, having suffered about 200,000 casualties, is now simply throwing poorly trained and equipped forces at the front line, backed up by pounding artillery fire. It is an extremely costly tactic, with Russia losing lives at a record pace. But it is also taking its toll on Ukrainian forces, who are also suffering major casualties, with fewer Ukrainians on deck to replace them. Russia has deeper reserves. This situation must not continue for months on end.
Russia continues to hit Ukrainian civilian infrastructure with drones, missiles, and bombs. Even though most are shot down, enough get through to keep degrading Ukraine’s infrastructure and deter foreign investment. New Western weapons, such as longer-range artillery and tanks, are arriving slowly, and still, other systems (such as ATACMS and multi-role aircraft) are denied. Thus far, nothing is arriving in Ukraine that is changing the pattern of Russia’s attacks on civilian infrastructure, or the trajectory of the current conflict.
Western military aid seems to lack a sense of urgency — as though having gotten Ukraine this far, we can now continue as is. Yet continuing “as is” means unacceptable human and economic costs to Ukraine. This must change in the wake of President Biden’s visit. It is time to commit to Ukraine’s victory, and provide all the means necessary.
The lack of a sense of urgency is reinforced by two other factors: learning the wrong lessons from the past year and failing to answer tough questions about the future.
When Russia launched its all-out invasion on February 24, most observers believed that its forces were highly capable, well-organized, and would defeat Ukrainian forces in a matter of days. Most thought the Ukrainians could not defend themselves. Both judgments were spectacularly wrong: Russian forces are massive but decrepit, and Ukrainian forces are more capable and motivated.
As the West realized that Ukraine would not be defeated in days or even weeks, we began to send a trickle of more serious military aid. But at each step of the way, we declined to provide certain systems (such as Stinger missiles, NASAMS, armored vehicles, HIMARS, longer-range artillery, and tanks) before ultimately providing them. Months were lost. At each step of the way, we assumed that Ukrainians would need months of complex training, before observing that they could integrate new systems quickly and competently. Perhaps it is due to NATO’s recent experience in Afghanistan, but we consistently underestimated the Ukrainian military’s ability to perform. They could have used more and better weapons, and sooner.
Some officials in the West justify this slow pace of assistance as finely calibrated: giving the Ukrainians what they needed when they needed it, without triggering a major Russian escalation. This is sophistry. Russia is already engaged in an all-out war against Ukraine, and it is going badly for Russia. They have already escalated. The last thing Russia wants is to draw other countries into the war, either by attacking NATO territory, or using a nuclear weapon. It would mean certain defeat for Russia. But by bluffing its way through, Russia is deterring the West from escalating as we could, rather than the other way around.
The lesson the West should be learning from the past year is not that our approach has worked and should be repeated. It is that the slow, grudging incremental pace of assistance was unnecessarily costly to Ukrainians, and, if continued this year, risks giving Russia the advantage of time and mass.
Underlying this Western incrementalism is a simple problem: the West has no vision for how the fighting stops, and how we deal with a Russian that has explicitly adopted a fascist and imperialist ideology that is a threat to us all. As long as Putin is in power, as long as Russian society does not accept responsibility for the crime of aggression and for the horrific crimes against humanity committed by Russian forces, and as long as Russia refuses to live within its international borders, the country will be in permanent conflict with the West.
Putin will not simply negotiate a peace. He has staked his personal legacy on rebuilding the Russian Empire. Even if he accepts a temporary ceasefire, it will only be to regroup and attack again. His ambition is not limited only to Ukraine, but to all of the former Soviet Union and if he were to achieve that, he would go still further.
No one in the West wants this outcome, yet no one in the West has a policy for avoiding it. Russia needs to change from within, and the only way for this to happen is for Russia to be defeated by Ukraine on the battlefield. Only this would cause the kind of soul-searching that is needed for Russia to emerge as a modern country living within its borders, rather than a revanchist empire trampling on the lives of others.
Western leaders worry about avoiding World War III — meaning nuclear war. This is an unlikely scenario and one which the West has managed well. They should worry more about the likely scenario of a protracted conflict with a militarized, authoritarian, imperial Russia. Avoiding that requires more assertive, stronger, faster, and decisive aid to Ukraine.
Ambassador Kurt Volker is a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA.) A leading expert in US foreign and national security policy, he served as US Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations from 2017-2019, and as US Ambassador to NATO from 2008-2009.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.