Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 21 February 2024

Ukraine faces a valley of death. There’s a way Biden can help it get across.

Opinion by David Ignatius


February 21, 2024 at 8:21 Taiwan Time

The message at the Munich Security Conference last weekend couldn’t have been clearer: Russia is advancing, Ukraine is struggling to survive and the West needs to provide more military assistance now.

“Ukraine is headed for a morale gulch” unless its allies move quickly to bolster support, said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who led a bipartisan Senate delegation to the conference. “Russia is up, Ukraine is down,” and the West needs to help Kyiv’s brave soldiers find a way across “the valley of death” until Congress acts to send more weapons, Whitehouse said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky signaled exactly what he needs — long-range ATACM-300 missiles — during a private meeting with a bipartisan congressional group. He brought out a map showing the Russian targets in occupied Crimea that could be hit by those ATACMS. The strikes wouldn’t liberate Crimea, but they would rattle Russia’s confidence and lift Ukrainian morale at a time when Russian President Vladimir Putin thinks he’s in control.

President Biden has been reluctant to send the ATACMS, for good reason. The United States needs them for its own defense. And Biden doesn’t want an escalatory spiral with Russia. But nothing is more important to U.S. security right now than helping Ukraine halt Russia’s momentum on the battlefield. And Ukraine has shown that it will keep its promises not to fire U.S. weapons into Russian territory. Don’t wait for legislation; send the missiles.

Two events last weekend underlined Putin’s macabre momentum. The death of heroic dissident Alexei Navalny in a Siberian prison camp shows that Putin is conducting a “no limits” assault, as Russian mobsters like to say. Russia’s capture of Avdiivka in eastern Ukraine showed that Putin will sacrifice tens of thousands of soldiers in his “meat assaults,” as Zelensky described them.

Avdiivka matters not because of its strategic importance, but because Ukrainian troops there were running out of artillery ammunition and air defenses — a sign of their growing vulnerability. The shortage of air defenses is especially worrying: Russian planes could drop precision bombs on Avdiivka at will. If Ukraine doesn’t get new air-defense supplies soon, that threat could extend to cities across the country.

Russian troops are grinding forward using their two great national resources — warm bodies and coldblooded patience. That’s how Russia fights its wars, from Napoleon to Hitler to now. “They are crazy, they are raging … tens of thousands of their soldiers. That’s what they have,” Zelensky told the conference. Ukraine, in contrast, was struggling to protect its troops, whom he described as “our main weapon.”

“This war is going Russia’s way now,” warned a European ambassador who’s one of the West’s wisest observers of the Kremlin. He remembered cautioning U.S. officials when the war started that “it will take 500,000 dead before Russia stops.” Their estimated casualties total more than 300,000 dead and wounded, according to U.S. officials.

Putin can keep sending troops not just because of Russian stoicism, but because he has cleverly drawn his forces from the poorest and most disadvantaged areas of the country. Those dying are disproportionately ethnic minorities from backwaters such as Chechnya and Dagestan, U.S. analysts say. The pay for soldiers at the front is three times what they would normally earn, and the families of dead soldiers receive a bonus worth more than $50,000, noted the European ambassador. “The war has brought a kind of prosperity for poor Russians,” he said.

Navalny’s death displayed Putin’s calculus. He doesn’t care about elite public opinion because it doesn’t threaten his control. Demonstrators laying flowers or staging small marches don’t faze him. “Anything below a million we can handle,” a Kremlin official told the European ambassador several years ago. The message, the diplomat told me, was that “thousands of demonstrators are a drop in the ocean.”

Yet even Putin knows he can’t keep the killing machine operating indefinitely. That’s why U.S. congressional support for continued military aid matters so much. It buys Ukraine time to consolidate its defenses and protect its territory from attack this year — so that maybe next year, it can relaunch an offensive. For Ukraine, sustaining the fight and blocking Russia is a kind of victory.

One sign that the Kremlin is nervous is that Russian officials continue their nuclear saber-rattling. Dmitry Medvedev, a former Russian president, said on Telegram that if the West tried to force Russia back from the Ukrainian territory it has occupied to its “1991 border,” then Russia would use its “nuclear triad” to attack targets including Kyiv, Berlin, London and Washington. Even for a Kremlin henchman, it was outrageous bullying.

This war is a character test for the West. Europe, to my surprise, is behaving with admirable fortitude, at least compared with the United States. Biden has been steadfast, but it’s time for him to do more.

As for congressional Republicans ready to abandon Ukraine at the whim of former president Donald Trump, one can only feel sorrow — especially for someone who once knew better, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), who had been until this year a bedrock member of the Munich conference’s consensus to resist Russian aggression. He has become a living sign of the corrosive effect of Trump’s embrace.

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