Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 2 January 2024


Does Biden Want Ukraine to Win?


He has spoken about standing shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine, about helping the country “for as long as it takes” and about not letting Mr. Putin win. But the administration has never made a clear commitment to a Ukrainian victory—to helping the country liberate all its legally recognized territory and become part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Perhaps the reason for this reluctance is obvious: The Biden administration doesn’t want Ukraine to win. Instead, there are signs the administration wants to force a sordid deal on Kyiv, one in which Ukrainians hand over large parts of their country, including Crimea, to Mr. Putin. The best evidence of this is that the administration has bent over backward not to supply Ukraine with the weapons needed to hit Russian targets in Crimea.

While the U.S. has pumped about $50 billion of weaponry into Ukraine, what it has given is rather one-dimensional. Washington has mostly sent weapons of limited range (howitzers, artillery, fighting vehicles and ammunition) and defensive weapons such as Patriot antiair systems. The administration has temporized about sending longer-range weapons, even though the U.S. has large stocks of them.

One example is the limited way the U.S. has supplied Ukraine with Himars ammunition. First appearing on the battlefield in early summer 2022, U.S.-made Himars, an acronym for High-Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, showed their value with great accuracy and punch. Ukraine used Himars to devastate Russian ammunition and supply depots, helping stop the Russian army in its tracks and leading to the liberation of much Ukrainian territory around Kharkiv and Kherson.

Yet the administration limited the type of Himars ammunition it provided, making sure the Ukrainians could attack Russian forces only within about 50 miles of the front—leaving Crimea off-limits. Predictably, after a few weeks of seeing their depots exploding, the Russians moved their supply points more than 50 miles from the front, many to Crimea. The Ukrainians had no way to hit them.

The administration’s action had to be deliberate, as the U.S. has significant stores of Himars ammunition, known as ATACMS (for Army Tactical Missile Systems), which could reach targets in the internationally recognized territory of Ukraine. No matter how often the Ukrainians asked for ATACMS, the answer was, until recently, no.

Finally in October, the U.S. sent Ukraine around 20 ATACMS. Ukraine used them against Russian military helicopters and other targets that had been out of range. However far too few ATACMS were sent. After a handful of successful operations, Ukraine seems to have run out.

In depriving the Ukrainians of the ability to mount a sustained, long-range campaign against Russia, the administration is leaving Kyiv without the capability it needs to win. The ground war at the front in 2023 has made it clear that direct advances against prepared defensive positions are almost impossible. Both in the spring around the city of Bakhmut and in the autumn around Avdiivka, the Russians made very slow progress at the cost of mass casualties and crippling equipment losses. The Ukrainians, when supplied with Western tanks and vehicles, struggled to advance this summer.

In comparison, long-range weapons have been very effective. In 2023 the U.K. and France sent Ukraine a few hundred of their Storm Shadow/Scalp cruise missiles. The systems are similar but have different names. These missiles enabled Ukrainians to hit targets anywhere in Crimea and to neuter Russian naval power in the peninsula.

The Storm Shadow/Scalps played a crucial role in the Ukrainian attack on Sevastopol in September. Sevastopol was the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, and Moscow considered it relatively safe. Within moments, fire rained down on the base, damaging two major warships so badly that they haven’t operated since. Last week the Ukrainians used Storm Shadow/Scalps to sink the landing ship Novocherkassk in Crimea.

The attack underscores Crimea’s vulnerability to long-range fire. Only the Kerch Bridge connects it to Russia. As the Russians are being driven from the naval bases, they will become almost entirely reliant on the bridge. If the Ukrainians could stop movement across it, Russian rule over Crimea would be threatened. The U.S. has many systems in addition to ATACMS, such as Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles, that could help, but it isn’t offering them.

Arming Ukraine with long-range systems would help Ukraine liberate Crimea and end the war sooner, saving lives on both sides. An administration that wants Ukraine to win should see that and act accordingly. If the Biden administration continues to hem and haw, after all we have seen in recent months, we can stop asking whether it wants Ukraine to win the war. The answer would be no.

Mr. O’Brien is a professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.

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