Supplying Ukraine: US and allies face hard choices on hard power

Serhii Nuzhnenko/Reuters
A Ukrainian serviceman stands next to a Javelin anti-tank missile in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, April 18, 2022. With Ukraine facing an intensified Russian offensive in the east, Kyiv has asked the U.S. and its allies for more than just defensive weapons.
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After assertive use of soft power against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – isolation and sanctions – U.S. President Joe Biden and his partners now face hard choices about hard power as a decisive battle begins in eastern Ukraine. 

The U.S. and allies ­have expanded deliveries of weapons that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenksyy says are essential to rebuff Russia’s new offensive. But not everything has been forthcoming – and allies like France and Germany appear to have broader reservations that increased support might further undercut a possible eventual negotiated end to the war.

Why We Wrote This

How the United States and its European allies respond as the Ukraine battle escalates could prove crucial not only to Ukraine but the wider shape of world politics in the long run.

Mr. Zelenskyy’s view is that “hard power” choices should be easy. Russia’s aim, to take Ukraine within days, was beaten back. With proper military hardware, he argues, there’s every prospect of thwarting this offensive. Success could forestall future Russian attacks on other states and affect the post-war calculus of many countries currently hedging their bets.

Concerns about widening the war into a head-on contest between NATO and Russian forces looms. Still, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen urged EU states Sunday to provide whatever they could, saying the initial distinction between defensive and offensive weaponry had become irrelevant. “Ukraine,” she argued, “has to get whatever it needs to defend itself.”

The decisive battle for the future of Ukraine is beginning. And how the United States and its European allies respond could prove crucial not just in determining the outcome, but the wider shape of world politics once it’s finally over.

Just as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assault on the strategically key eastern part of Ukraine poses a new scale of threat to Ukraine’s military and besieged civilians, it has set a new, high-stakes policy test for the Western allies.

After their unprecedentedly assertive use of soft-power levers against Russia’s initial invasion – diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions – U.S. President Joe Biden and his partners are facing an entirely different challenge.

Why We Wrote This

How the United States and its European allies respond as the Ukraine battle escalates could prove crucial not only to Ukraine but the wider shape of world politics in the long run.

They’re having to make hard choices about hard power.

Specifically, are they prepared to give Ukraine the military and technological hardware needed to ensure that Mr. Putin’s invasion ends, if not in outright defeat, at least in the kind of stalemate no one except Mr. Putin and his state media can credibly describe as victory?

The encouraging news for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is that the Biden administration and a number of allies ­have been coming around to answering “yes.” They’ve been expanding deliveries in recent weeks of a number of the kinds of weapons he’s argued will be essential to turning back Russia’s new offensive.

Virginia Mayo/AP
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, upon his arrival for a meeting of NATO foreign ministers to discuss bolstering their support for Ukraine, at NATO headquarters in Brussels, April 6, 2022.

He’s not been getting all that he’s asked for, however: There’s still no sign of a willingness to provide advanced fighter planes and tanks, for instance.

And to his added frustration, some allies like France and Germany appear to have broader reservations about whether increased outside military support might further reduce the prospects of an eventual negotiated end to the war.

The stark reality is that, for Ukraine, time is growing short. On Monday, Mr. Zelenskyy said the long buildup to the Russian offensive seemed to be over. Mr. Putin’s major assault on resource-rich eastern Ukraine and its Black Sea port city of Odesa was now underway. 

From Mr. Zelenskyy’s point of view, the “hard power” choice should be easy.

Mr. Putin’s initial aim, to topple the Zelenskyy government and triumphantly enter the capital city of Kyiv within days, was beaten back by a determined Ukrainian resistance that took not just the Russians but the U.S. and its allies by surprise. And that was accomplished with allied assistance explicitly limited to small-scale defensive weaponry.

Now, Mr. Putin is doubling down in the east. His apparent hope: a no-holds-barred assault allowing him to proclaim success in time for Victory Day, the May 9 national holiday marking the Soviet army’s defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II.

With the kind of military deliveries for which Mr. Zelenskyy has been pressing, he argues there’s every prospect of thwarting Mr. Putin’s renewed offensive. These include not just aircraft and tanks, but other weaponry which the U.S. and key allies have, in fact, been starting to provide: anti-tank, anti-air, and anti-missile defenses, mobile armored vehicles, high-capability attack drones, and anti-ship munitions to keep Russia’s Black Sea fleet from targeting Odesa.

And if Putin’s push in the east does fail, that could have important geopolitical implications. It would likely forestall future Russian attacks on other states. It could also affect the postwar calculus of the dozens of countries worldwide – including regional powers like India and Pakistan, Israel and the Arab Gulf states – that have so far been hedging their diplomatic bets on the eventual outcome.

So why are the hard-power choices so hard for the allies?

One reason still resonates even in Washington and other allied capitals broadly in favor of greater military backing for Kyiv.

It’s the fear of widening the war into a head-on contest between NATO and Russian forces.

Significantly, Mr. Putin himself has been moving to reinforce that concern. Last week, Russia delivered a warning to the U.S. and its NATO allies against providing “sensitive” weaponry to the Ukrainians. Such “irresponsible militarization of Ukraine,” the diplomatic note said, could mean “unpredictable consequences for regional and international security.”

Yet while that concern is still certain to rule out any direct participation by U.S. or NATO troops in Ukraine, or the provision of weapons with which Ukraine could attack Russia itself, the Americans have become increasingly persuaded of the need to consider a broad range of support short of those red lines. 

Mauricio Campino/U.S. Air Force/AP
Airmen and civilians from the 436th Aerial Port Squadron palletize ammunition, weapons, and other equipment bound for Ukraine during a foreign military sales mission at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, Jan. 21, 2022.

Some allies, like Britain and Poland, are likely to be fully behind such a move.

But Washington will be aware that others, notably Germany and France, are apt to be far less enthusiastic.

It’s not that they differ with the U.S. and other NATO partners on the seriousness of the threat posed by Mr. Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. But they’re also focused on what they view as the need to look toward an eventual diplomatic settlement of the war, and they seem concerned that a prolonged and escalating conflict will make the search for a political offramp more difficult.

That doesn’t mean they will, or can, necessarily keep other allies from supplying Mr. Zelenskyy’s military.

Indeed, a kind of de facto inner alliance of NATO powers – America and Britain and Ukraine’s other immediate neighbors like Poland and the Baltic states – are increasingly likely to do so as Mr. Putin’s attack intensifies.

Yet the key question in the days ahead will be what kinds of weapons to provide – specifically whether to transfer higher-tech aircraft and other systems – in order to ensure Mr. Putin’s offensive doesn’t succeed.

What is clear, at least, is that the sense of urgency conveyed by Mr. Zelenskyy in recent weeks now resonates strongly in Western capitals.

The mood was best captured, perhaps, by former German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, now president of the European Commission, the 27-member European Union’s executive body.

In an interview Sunday, she urged all EU states to provide whatever weaponry they could. And “quickly, because only in that way can Ukraine survive in its acute defensive battle against Russia.”

She added that the initial distinction between defensive and offensive weaponry had become irrelevant. “Ukraine,” she argued, “has to get whatever it needs to defend itself.”

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