Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday, 23 February 2023


The Biden administration is wrong: Time is not on Ukraine’s side

A journalist walks amid the destruction after a Russian attack in Byshiv, Ukraine, on March 27. (Rodrigo Abd/AP)
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As the Ukraine war enters its second year, the Biden administration is pledging to support Kyiv for “as long as it takes.” That language is calculated to send a message of resolve to Russian President Vladimir Putin, but it’s not what Ukrainians want to hear. Though they’re fighting valiantly, Ukrainians are also suffering greatly — and they are begging the West to help them speed up the war, not settle in for an endless slog.

Just a few days before the anniversary of Putin’s unprovoked invasion last year, Biden visited Kyiv and made a rousing speech in Poland promising that the West “will never waver” in the fight for freedom and democracy. A few days earlier, Vice President Harris took the stage at the Munich Security Conference to declare America’s endless commitment to the Ukraine effort.

“The daily agony of war will persist,” she said. “But if Putin thinks he can wait us out, he is badly mistaken. Time is not on his side.”

Nearly all the Ukrainian officials I met in Munich respectfully disagree. It’s not just about weapons (although they insist that more and better weapons are badly and quickly needed). These Ukrainian officials say they’re worried that the Biden administration’s stance could undermine support for Kyiv’s strategy, which is to accelerate the war effort now and avoid a protracted stalemate.

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For them, an endless war means a win for Putin and the loss of their country as they know it.

“We are very grateful for the support that is coming, but there is one phrase that makes us very concerned,” Ukrainian member of parliament Yelyzaveta Yasko told me. “Many leaders right now are saying, ‘We will support you as long as it takes.’ And we feel this phrase is quite dangerous.”

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Opinions on the war in Ukraine after one year
One year ago, Russia invaded Ukraine. Post Opinions is marking the anniversary with columns looking at all that has transpired and what may lie ahead.
Post Opinions partnered with the Brookings Institution to visualize the war’s effects on Ukraine’s economy, immigration trends and more. Together, these indicators suggest the fighting is unlikely to end anytime soon, write Michael O’Hanlon, Constanze Stelzenmüller and David Wessel of Brookings.
The Editorial Board looked for solutions, calling on the United States and its European allies to intensify their military, economic and diplomatic support for Kyiv. Vladimir Putin hopes for a stalemate, the Editorial Board writes, and the West needs to fuel a game-changing shift in momentum.
In an op-ed adapted from her Feb. 9 speech at the “Rebuilding Ukraine, Rebuilding the World” conference at Harvard, Oleksandra Matviichuk writes that it is not only wrong but also immoral not to provide weapons for Ukraine.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling describes the Ukraine war as a slugfest, not a stalemate. He outlines five phases of the war and predicts that Ukraine’s forces will ultimately prevail.
Columnist Jason Willick looks at the war through the lens of U.S. politics. President Biden, he says, is positioned to take advantage of divided government by using as his foil Republicans who oppose continued support for Ukraine.
Antony Beevor, a former tank commander with the British Army, says the Ukraine war has revived the role of the main battle tank.
Columnist David Ignatius examines three main characters of the war: Vladimir Putin, Volodymyr Zelensky and Joe Biden. A year into the war, Ignatius writes, Putin’s staying power begins to seem questionable, while Zelensky and Biden have never looked stronger.
Columnist George F. Will discusses the importance of continued support for Ukraine, writing that Putin can win only if Ukraine’s allies neglect to maximize their moral and material advantages.
Graham Allison, a professor of government at Harvard, reconsiders what it would mean to win in Ukraine. A new Cold War, he writes, might not be the worst outcome.
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Biden’s messaging signals that the West is psychologically and politically preparing for a long war. But Yasko told me the window of opportunity for winning is closing. Russia’s attacks on Ukrainian infrastructureenergy production and agricultural facilities are taking a brutal toll on the economy. The Ukrainian military is incurring heavy losses.

The deepening destruction means Ukraine will become even more dependent on the West in the future and reconstruction will become exorbitantly expensive and difficult. The longer the war goes on, the less industry Ukrainian refugees will have to return to.

Ukrainian member of parliament Oleksii Honcharenko told me victory must see Ukraine emerge as a healthy democracy with a functioning economy, or it will all be for naught. This is why, he says, the war must be won this year.

“If the war goes on for several more years, and then there is victory … it will be a Pyrrhic victory,” he said.

Ukrainians are also keenly aware of the war-weariness among citizens in the United States and Europe. As Ukrainians know only too well, Putin doesn’t have to take the opinions of his citizens into account. Biden, by contrast, has a political incentive to see this conflict end sooner rather than later.

“Do you really want another forever war?” asked Honcharenko. “The war should be finished this year. That should be the message.”

See more charts on the war in Ukraine

Biden administration officials rightly tout the enormous amount of military aid that has been provided to Ukraine and take credit for maintaining unity among NATO allies. But the White House’s fear of escalation with Russia has hampered its willingness to give Ukraine the things that Ukraine says it needs to win the war this year.

The Ukrainians are asking for longer-range missiles, advanced drones, more air defenses and lots of tanks, as well as fighter aircraft. The Biden administration’s pattern over the past year has been to withhold the types of advanced weapons Ukrainians are asking for, fearing escalation, and then, when Putin escalates anyway, provide them later.

Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine William B. Taylor Jr. told me the risk of Putin deciding to expand the war beyond Ukraine at this point is “very low,” given the state of Russia’s battered army.

“The delay in providing the weapons costs lives, because if we provided the weapons, that could shorten the war,” he said.

By providing Ukraine with just enough weaponry to fight to a medium-boil stalemate, the Biden approach is seen by many Ukrainians as an intentional strategy to nudge Ukraine toward negotiations. Ukrainian officials maintain that talks are possible only when Putin feels more pressure.

The first thing you will hear from any Ukrainian is “Thank you.” Ukrainians are not ungrateful or greedy — they are trying to survive. But their desperation is increasing. “As long as it takes” must not become an excuse for a lack of urgency. By next year’s anniversary, there might not be a Ukraine to save.

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