By: The Editorial Board – wsj.com – January 18, 2023
Western governments are applauding themselves for helping Ukraine resist Russia’s invasion, and some credit is certainly due. But as the war’s first anniversary looms, so does a new moment of decision: Will the U.S. and Europe let the war grind on as a brutal stalemate, or will they provide enough military aid so Ukraine can take back its territory and win the war?
The Ukrainians have put up an heroic fight and retaken some of the territory Russia grabbed early in the war. But the bitter truth is that Vladimir Putin shows no sign of letting up despite his humiliating setbacks. Mr. Putin is venting his frustration by lobbing missiles at apartment buildings, with one in Dnipro killing 40 people, including children, this week. American Patriot missile defenses are still weeks or months from arriving, as Ukrainian troops train on the system in Oklahoma.
Russia may be gearing up for another offensive. The Institute for the Study of War warned this week that Russia is “preparing to conduct a decisive strategic action in the next six months,” perhaps in an attempt to overrun Luhansk Oblast in the east.
Mr. Putin may also expand his conventional force to 1.5 million troops, up from 1.35 million now. He is working to revive Moscow’s ability to produce weapons and calling every dictator in his Rolodex for arms. Russian casualties are of no great consequence to him. He thinks that, as the war drags on, he can outlast Western support for Kyiv and still emerge with much of Ukraine under his control.
That may prove to be right if Ukraine can’t build on its gains in the latter half of 2022 and retake its territory soon. Ukrainians clearly have the will to keep fighting, as Vitali Klitschko notes nearby, but they need more and better arms than the West has provided so far.
An emerging fiasco over Ukraine’s urgent request for tanks illustrates the problem. The U.K. said this week it will provide Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine, but only 14. News reports Wednesday said Germany won’t sign off on transfers of its Leopard tanks unless the U.S. provides its own Abrams tanks. This military pas de do not should embarrass both the Germans and the White House.
Leopards are excellent battle tanks in service across European militaries, with some 2,000 in NATO cupboards, by one estimate. Military analysts have suggested the Ukrainians would need at least 100 to make a dent on the battlefield, and the priority should be providing the tanks rapidly and at scale. The U.S. Marines recently retired their tank battalions as part of a strategy shift, and those Abrams could be put to good use in Ukraine.
Yet the Biden Administration is leaking that the aid it plans to announce this week won’t include tanks. Neither will the U.S. offer the Army tactical missile system, which would allow the Ukrainians to strike targets from afar, launched off the Himars systems that have been deployed to such great effect.
This reluctance is a profile in puzzling timidity. The White House fear is apparently that the war will escalate if Mr. Putin continues to lose ground. The Russian is capable of anything, but there is no moral or strategic case for giving Ukraine just enough weapons to bleed for months with no chance of victory.
The stronger case is to help Ukraine win rapidly with more arms and by scrapping U.S. restrictions on how Ukraine wages war. The U.S. has said Ukrainian strikes on Russian territory are off-limits, and the practical effect has been to let Moscow concentrate forces on Eastern Ukraine without having to defend some of its own depots and bases. Why should a dictator who rolled over a foreign border be free to claim his territory as sacrosanct?
The rejoinder is that Mr. Putin might unleash a nuclear weapon, but the past months have shown that he will make that decision based on his own calculations in any case. If he does, he will face even more global ostracism and Western help for Ukraine.
A long and ugly stalemate in Ukraine would put Russia in position to menace its neighbors for years to come, which would be even more costly for the U.S. and Europe. President Biden is receiving plaudits for keeping the Ukraine coalition together despite the economic and military strains. But the praise will turn to harsh and deserved criticism if the war grinds on and Russia wins its war of bloody attrition.
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