Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 5 September 2023

How to Help Ukraine Win the War of Attrition

Roll up the Wagner Group in Africa and make Russia pay for aggression in Syria, Moldova and elsewhere.

Walter Russell Mead

Sept. 4, 2023 4:43 pm ET

Russian mercenaries in northern Mali. PHOTO: /ASSOCIATED PRESS

Eighteen months into Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine, two things seem clear. First, the war matters. After 15 years of failed Western responses to Russian aggression against Georgia and Ukraine, another failure to contain and deter Russia would have catastrophic consequences around the world.

Second, current American strategy is not working well. Ukrainians are fighting bravely. We can and should hope for Ukrainian breakthroughs that transform the military situation and break Russian morale, but hope is not a plan.

Absent decisive military victories for Ukraine, the conflict is developing into a war of attrition, and given current American strategy that kind of war favors Russia. Moscow has more people, more resources and more territory than Ukraine. Worse, Ukrainian forces can make progress only by attacking prepared Russian defenses. If you are in a war of attrition but you have to keep hurling your forces at well-entrenched, well-defended enemy positions, you will burn through your reserves faster than your opponent.

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Ukraine has another vulnerability. It depends on Western aid, and Western public opinion is fickle. The need to produce dramatic results to keep Western support from flagging may have forced Ukraine into launching the counteroffensive before its forces were ready.

Meanwhile, like LBJ agonizing over target selection in North Vietnam, President Biden frets over every weapons shipment to Ukraine, worried that sending too many arms of the wrong kind will trigger Russian escalation and risk a nuclear holocaust. He dribbles out enough support to keep Ukraine in the field but stops short of providing the kind of assistance that Kyiv really needs.

This may feel rational and even statesmanlike to the president, but it is a hard sell in American politics. If Russia is so evil and threatening that we must help Ukraine, why aren’t we doing enough to help Ukraine win? If Americans conclude that Mr. Biden’s Ukraine strategy will produce what political scientist Max Abrahms calls a forever war with a side order of nation building, support for Mr. Biden’s war policy is likely to collapse well before Russia throws in the towel.

The answer is not to walk away from Ukraine, but to fight Mr. Putin in smarter and politically more sustainable ways. Mr. Putin must pay, and be seen to pay, for his attack on Ukraine, and to do that the U.S. needs a whole-of-government campaign against Russian interests and assets around the world.

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Fortunately, we operate in a target-rich environment, and there are lots of ways that Team Biden can bring the cost of war home to the Kremlin.

One option is to roll up the Wagner Group and its successors in Africa. Standing passively by as Mr. Putin’s proxies established a new colonial empire across the Sahel was an act of strategic incompetence. The Wagner Group is lawless and ruthless but it is not 10 feet tall. Bringing real peace and stability to the Sahel is a complex and long-term project, but dismantling Mr. Putin’s tin-pot African empire is well within the capabilities of the U.S. and its allies in Europe and the Gulf.

We could work with Turkey and neighboring states to make Mr. Putin’s presence in Syria ruinously expensive while bringing him diminishing returns. Forcing Mr. Putin to devote more resources to Syria while reducing its usefulness to him weakens him in Ukraine and at home.

The U.S. can apply pressure in other places, such as Russia’s illegal enclave in Moldova. Belarus is a de facto co-belligerent participating in Russia’s war. Our goal should be to force Mr. Putin to devote scarce resources to keeping his satellite afloat.

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The U.S. can also target Mr. Putin’s Latin American allies. The Biden administration needs to move past the leftist shibboleths of the 20th century and develop a concerted approach toward pushing Russia out of the Western hemisphere.

Mr. Putin’s networks of cronies, allies and agents extend well beyond Russia. These people need to learn that collaboration with rogue states is a poor career choice. President Biden should instruct the intelligence community to work with the Treasury Department and prosecutors around the world to expose the shady deals, tax evasion, bribery and other bad behavior that holds Mr. Putin’s global network in place. Some prominent careers may collapse in disgrace. That would be a good thing. Working with allies, the full power of American intelligence should be devoted to the detection and systematic deconstruction of Mr. Putin’s international assets.

Despite the disappointing performance of our sanctions so far, the Russian economy remains an important vulnerability for the Kremlin. As analyst Edward Luttwak points out, we can accelerate the degradation of Russia’s economy by focusing on critical components that Russia badly needs but can’t easily make or source. The Russian gas industry, for instance, depends on a range of cold-weather equipment that is made in the West.

There are other things we can do. We can help Ukraine develop a powerful arms industry and defense establishment that pose a permanent obstacle to Russian ambitions in the region. We can go pedal-to-the-metal on energy production of all kinds to cut global prices and Mr. Putin’s revenues without alienating countries like India. We can advance a multinational effort to ensure that the world’s uranium market won’t depend on Russia. We can develop military technologies and weapons systems that Russia cannot hope to match, just as Ronald Reagan did with his missile defense program in the 1980s.

If this is a war of attrition, the U.S. and its partners are well-placed to win. We just need to make up our minds and roll up our sleeves.

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