The risks of American hesitancy are growing every day—and aren’t confined to Europe.
The Biden administration’s reluctance to provide Ukraine with more sophisticated weapons critical to its defense comes at a high cost. Russia now controls a quarter of Ukraine and is gradually pushing westward. If the U.S. fails to change its policy, Russia will continue to seize more territory in Ukraine and may become emboldened for future conquests.
The war has evolved since Vladimir Putin’s February invasion. Initially, the smaller Ukrainian military was able to rebuff Russian advances and inflict heavy casualties. Strong resistance exposed serious problems of logistics, morale, training, corruption, and command and control within Russian ranks.
But the conflict has entered a new phase. The Russian military has since improved its logistics and used artillery, missile and airstrikes to wear down Ukrainian forces. In focusing their campaign on eastern and southern Ukraine, Russian forces have now seized the Luhansk oblast and are moving toward such cities as Slovyansk and Bakhmut in the Donetsk oblast.
Ukraine likely couldn’t have stopped Russia’s initial drive without the more than $7 billion in weapons that America has sent so far, in addition to supplies from other allies. But these arms, mostly short-range weapons systems, are no longer sufficient. As the war persists—and changes—so too do the military’s needs. To retake territory from dug-in Russian forces, Ukraine will need a more sophisticated fighter-aircraft fleet (retiring F-15s and F-16s), advanced drones (MQ-1Cs), MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile Systems, and main battle tanks and infantry-fighting vehicles. It isn’t the quantity of weapons that is paramount, but the type of weapons and how they are used.
Consider Ukraine’s Soviet-era air force. Combat losses in the past five months have cost it at least 35 fixed-wing combat aircraft out of an original fleet of fewer than 150. With fewer aircraft available, each plane has to endure more sorties and wears down faster. Without replenishment from the West, Ukraine could lose the ability to defend its airspace and target Russian ground forces.
Nevertheless, the Biden administration is hesitant to lend additional equipment for two main reasons—both of which are unpersuasive.
First, some officials fear that supplying Ukraine with more-advanced arms could provoke an escalatory spiral that leads to direct conflict between Russia and NATO countries. But Mr. Putin’s gambit to take over a sovereign, democratic nation that had done nothing to provoke military aggression was already an escalation. Russia has used virtually every conventional weapon in its inventory against military and civilian targets, deported hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens to Russia, and blockaded Ukrainian grain from world markets. Ukraine is now simply trying to defend itself, and failing to give it the means to do so makes that effort virtually impossible.
This is why Mr. Putin seeks to instill a fear of escalation. If the West is too frightened to intervene, he’s free to run amok. That’s why the Obama administration did virtually nothing after Mr. Putin seized Crimea, opened a front in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, and intervened in Syria in 2015. Knowing the U.S. has a proclivity for self-deterrence, he’s now rattled his nuclear saber over Ukraine. But America shouldn’t give in to the threat; that will only motivate Mr. Putin to do it again. Instead, Washington should help unite world opinion, beginning in the United Nations General Assembly, around the consequences of breaking the nuclear taboo. Mr. Putin will be deterred if he understands that using atomic weapons would mean destroying Russia’s economy by even harsher international sanctions, pariah status and an international push for his removal.
The second concern holding the Biden administration back is that it will take too long to train Ukrainian forces on more-sophisticated weapons systems. This, too, is misplaced. The war in Ukraine began eight years ago when Russian forces illegally seized Crimea. There is little prospect that it will end anytime soon, especially with Ukraine determined to regain full territorial integrity and Russia bent on extinguishing Ukrainian national identity.
Furthermore, timelines for training have been inflated. Based on our discussions with current and retired U.S. Air Force officials, a Ukrainian pilot who can competently fly Soviet-era aircraft today may need only two to three months of training to fly U.S. F-15s and F-16s for air-to-ground missions. The same is true for Ukrainian drone pilots looking to fly American-made MQ-1C Gray Eagles. The sooner that training can begin for more-advanced systems, the better.
The costs of U.S. hesitancy are growing every day. Russian successes on the battlefield will only whet Mr. Putin’s appetite for further military adventurism and weaken deterrence. The risks aren’t confined to Europe, either. American reluctance also sends a signal to China that Washington and its Western partners may well dither if Beijing pounces on Taiwan. There is little time to waste.
Mr. Jones is senior vice president and director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and author, most recently, of “Three Dangerous Men: Russia, China, Iran, and the Rise of Irregular Warfare.” Mr. Wasielewski is a retired paramilitary operations officer in the Central Intelligence Agency and a Templeton Fellow for National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
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Appeared in the July 21, 2022, print edition.