Commentary on Political Economy

Monday, 21 March 2022

 

Don’t Go Wobbly on Ukraine Now

The best route to a settlement is more NATO support for Kyiv.

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The Ukrainian people are making great sacrifices fighting against Russia’s war machine, and their resistance is helping the free world. As NATO’s leaders meet this week in Brussels, now is the time for the alliance to repay this fortitude by escalating support for Kyiv.

“Ukrainian forces have defeated the initial Russian campaign of this war. That campaign aimed to conduct airborne and mechanized operations to seize Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odesa, and other major Ukrainian cities to force a change of government in Ukraine,” concludes the Washington-based Institute for the Study War (ISW) in a Saturday analysis. “Russian forces continue to make limited advances in some parts of the theater but are very unlikely to be able to seize their objectives in this way.”

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This is a remarkable achievement. Contrary to Western intelligence predictions, Ukraine’s military and burgeoning civil-defense forces have fought the Russian invaders to a stalemate. The easy victory Vladimir Putin anticipated to install a puppet government has been stymied—albeit at great cost in lost lives and ruined cities.

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Yet Mr. Putin shows every sign of continuing his campaign of bombing and starving cities. The rape of Mariupol should be a permanent scar on Russia, like Stalin’s 1940 murder of 22,000 Polish officers and intellectuals in the Katyn forest. Europe hasn’t seen anything like this since World War II. ISW says Russians are digging in around cities as if they plan a long siege. Civilian casualties aren’t incidental. They are central to the dictator’s war strategy.

Mr. Putin hopes to break Ukrainian morale, and sooner or later kill President Volodymyr Zelensky to rob Ukraine of his charismatic leadership. The Russian also hopes to crack NATO’s resolve by issuing threats of nuclear escalation while flooding Western Europe with millions of refugees—at least three million so far.

As NATO meets, the temptation in Brussels will be to look for a way out of the war. The Washington Post is filled with reports, clearly informed by U.S. officials, fretting that Mr. Zelensky doesn’t seem to have an “end game” for the war. The risk as the conflict continues is that the will of Team Biden and NATO will flag and at some point they will pressure Ukraine to settle.

That’s exactly the wrong message to send to Ukraine and Russia, and the NATO leaders should signal the opposite this week. The top priority is escalating weapons shipments to Kyiv, especially air defenses against Russia’s long-range missiles and high-altitude aircraft. Ukraine also needs more Turkish drones that have been effective against Russian tanks and artillery.

The leaders should also banish talk of giving Mr. Putin an exit ramp other than complete withdrawal from Ukraine. He can take that exit at any time. But if he refuses, then the Western goal should be to inflict as much pain as possible on Russia as a lesson to Mr. Putin and any other country that might try to conquer its neighbors.

That means following Mr. Zelensky’s lead on what Ukraine is willing to accept. Ukraine has earned the right to determine what concessions, if any, it can live with. The Ukrainian president has already taken NATO membership off the table, but he understandably is refusing to concede Russian control over Ukrainian territory. No one in the West should pressure him to accept such terms.

The U.S. and Europe can also increase the sanctions pressure on the Kremlin. Sanctions on Russian energy sales still aren’t in place, though they would hurt Mr. Putin’s war financing the most. Sanctions relief for Russia shouldn’t even be on the table until Mr. Putin withdraws his tanks and concedes Ukraine’s right to be an independent state.

What should be on NATO’s agenda is why Western intelligence misjudged the war. The CIA did very well in anticipating that Mr. Putin would invade, but it vastly overestimated the ability of his military to conquer Ukraine. That pessimism may have convinced President Biden that more military aid earlier wouldn’t have made a difference. Congress’s intelligence committees should investigate.

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Ukraine’s brave resistance has given the West an opportunity to push back against Russia and show the world’s authoritarians that democratic states can unite in defense for a righteous cause. As Margaret Thatcher once famously told George H.W. Bush, now is not the time to go wobbly.

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