In the article “Why Ukraine will win in 2023,” I ended 2022 with a positive prediction. I argued that we are seeing trends and processes that might cause a tectonic shift in Western foreign and security policy, including its support for Ukraine. European defense and security policy deliberations, discussions and decisions are undergoing a “maturing process.”
Equally important, the West has gradually come to acknowledge its part in a broader confrontation. Ukrainian efforts are being increasingly recognized as aligned with European values, principles, even interests.
The West has slowly come to understand the military logic behind Ukraine’s calls for more advanced arms. For eight years it denied Ukraine massive weapons deliveries, only to start weeks before the Russian assault last year. While Javelin anti-tank missiles were the first lethal aid to be delivered in the spring of 2018, they only came in significant quantities, along with Stinger surface-to-air missiles, in February. In March they were followed by Starstreak surface-to-air missiles, then M777 Howitzers in April, Brimstone and Harpoon missiles in May, HIMARS and M270s in June, HARM missiles in July, IRIS-T air defense in October, NASAMS air defense in November. More recently, there were pledges for Patriot air defense in December and main battle tanks in January.
Additionally, Ukraine has demonstrated professionalism, resilience and bravery while repeatedly crossing Russian “red lines” without repercussions, helping embolden its Western partners previously afraid of a Russian escalation of the war into a broader confrontation. This professionalism has helped Ukraine receive more sophisticated new weapons as well as test Russian resolve.
All of these are a result of military considerations, high-level diplomatic efforts, and due political process. With growing strategic maturity, the U.S. and its European partners have increasingly found themselves turning refusals into acceptance.
Still some distance to go
Despite the growing strategic maturity, we still have some distance to go before being in a position to act instead of reacting.
Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow and director of research for the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution argues: “The time for incrementalism in Ukraine is over. Send in the tanks.” He describes U.S. President Joe Biden’s policy in Ukraine as “fundamentally reactive, thus hindering the development of a strategy to end the war.” In my opinion, the assessment describes not only President Biden, but also German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron.
On Dec. 21, Biden said, “We’re going to give Ukraine what it needs to be able to defend itself, to be able to succeed, and succeed in the battlefield,” while stressing that he was unable to “give Ukraine everything there is to give” because there was the risk of “breaking up NATO and breaking up the European Union and the rest of the world.”
The statement is in line with his message from eight months before.
During President Biden’s press conference after the extraordinary of NATO Summit of Heads of State and Government on March 24, 2022, one month after the full-scale Russian invasion started, he stressed that his most important objective was to have absolute unity among NATO allies on three key important issues: 1) support Ukraine with military and humanitarian assistance; 2) impose the most significant economic sanctions ever to cripple Putin’s economy and punish him for his actions; and 3) fortify the eastern flank of NATO.
He has succeeded in meeting all three objectives but at the cost of NATO’s level of ambition and consequently, its credibility.
After the extraordinary NATO summit – and before the atrocities of Bucha, Irpin, Kramatorsk train station, Mariupol Drama Theater, Azovstal, Izyum, Dnipro, and all the other sites – I stressed:
“I fear that the aim of achieving full unity in the face of the massive atrocities taking place in Ukraine will come back and haunt NATO… Russia will step back if the Alliance choses a more active role. By not defending Ukraine, we might both see a protracted war with horrific atrocities as well as global consequences that might come back and challenge NATO and EU unity.”
The prediction has in part come true. We are witnessing the full-scale invasion turning into a protracted, horrific war aiming to destroy the Ukrainian nation through massive atrocities. NATO and EU unity is still holding, for now. There are, however, at least eight signs of discord within NATO.
NATO’s weakest link has been allowed to define the ambition level of the Alliance, hindering it from acting according to its previous strategic concept and protecting all of its member states.
Instead of openly supporting President Zelensky’s 10-point peace plan – which includes restoring Ukrainian borders with Russia, withdrawing all Russian forces and ending all hostilities – or calling for a defeat of Russian forces in Ukraine, Biden chose a far more ambiguous ambition.
The ambiguity is derived from the fact that he does not openly support a Ukrainian victory and the liberation of all territory; does not give Ukraine all the tools it needs to evict Russian forces; and does not call for NATO to act according to its strategic concept. His level of ambition is highlighted by General Milley’s statement that Ukraine will have an incredibly difficult time pushing Russia out of its territory this year (for the lack of the tools needed), reiterating his belief that the war will most likely end at the negotiating table.
The latter is not an assessment: It is a statement of intent.
Ukraine does not have a significant domestic military industry to turn to in the absence of Western support. Much of it has already been destroyed by Russia. What is left had been denied the transfer of Western technology during the first eight years of the war. As such, Ukraine is totally dependent upon Western defense and financial aid.
On Jan. 29the Institute for the Study of War pointed out that the patterns of Western aid – slow and incremental – and its refusal to supply Ukraine with higher-end weapons systems have shaped Ukraine’s ability to develop and execute sound campaign plans. It has limited Ukraine’s ability to initiate and continue large-scale counter-offensive operations.
ISW highlighted that delays in making commitments last summer “may have cost Ukraine a window of opportunity for a counter-offensive this winter.”
ISW also assessed: “The continual delays in providing Western material when it became apparent that it is or will soon be needed have thus contributed to the protraction of the conflict.”
Biden and Scholz’s refusal to deliver modern combat aircraft or long-range fire is yet another example of the West continuing to set the conditions for Ukraine’s ability to liberate occupied territories. Both are crucial to stop Russia’s indiscriminate attacks against Ukrainian cities, as well as to enable combined arms and joint operations to evict Russian forces from its territory.
The prerequisite that Ukraine is not allowed to attack Russian territory – and, therefore, destroy Russian combat aircraft, helicopters, missile systems, MLRS, artillery and main battle tanks attacking civilians with impunity from Russian territory or airspace – is allowing Russia to continue destroying Ukrainian statehood indefinitely.
The West needs a new strategy that will allow it to end the war on Ukraine’s terms, liberating occupied territories, ending the suffering and destruction of Ukraine, blocking the “tsunami of ripple effects” from undermining Europe and the U.S., and, not least, ensuring future security and stability. The U.S., EU and NATO need a strategy that is proactive and ensures that the West and Ukraine gain the initiative.
Michael McFaul, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia argues in favor of what he calls “The Big Bang Theory”:
“The way this new military assistance is announced matters. Rather than providing ATACMs in March, Reapers in June, and jets in September, NATO should go for a Big Bang. Plans to provide all these systems should be announced on Feb. 24, 2023, the first anniversary of Putin’s invasion. An announcement of this size will produce an important psychological effect inside the Kremlin and Russian society, signalling that the West is committed to Ukraine’s ambition to liberate all occupied territories.”
Two possible outcomes
Admittedly, Biden and Scholz are navigating difficult waters. They have to find support for their policy internally while gathering support externally, as they maneuver around obstacles like President Macron’s calls for negotiations and compromise, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s open support of Russia, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s obstruction of Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership applications, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s call to do what is needed to ensure a Ukrainian victory, and, not least, the indecisiveness of so many heads of state.
In the process, however, they risk losing sight of the reality: There are only two possible outcomes of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Victory or Defeat.
Any notion of a solution at the negotiating table ignores the facts that the Ukrainian nation will continue to fight long after the Ukrainian state has been forced to compromise and that Russia – a country that has grown for centuries at the cost of its neighbors – will never change.
In the words of former foreign minister of Poland and now EU lawmaker Anna Fotyga:
“Russia has not changed over the centuries. It is driven by the same imperial instincts, repeating the same scheme: conquest, genocide, colonization, and then seeking a silent acceptance of the status quo, bribing the international community through a mirage of economic cooperation or the illusion of a vast Russian market. We cannot be misled into thinking that Moscow is a part of the solution to any global problems.”
Limited and conditional support to Ukraine does not reduce the risk of a broader confrontation between Russia and NATO. Nor does slow, incremental and halfhearted support.
The present strategy increases the risk that the ongoing broader confrontation will continue to escalate.
Why? Because it is fundamentally reactive, leaving the West to respond to Russia’s next escalation.
It is time to acknowledge that Russia is waging a hybrid war against both NATO and EU members and act accordingly.
Hans Petter Midttun, Independent Analyst, Hybrid Warfare, Non-resident Fellow at Centre for Defence Strategies, board member Ukrainian Institute for Security and Law of the Sea, former Defence Attaché of Norway to Ukraine, and Officer (R) of the Norwegian Armed Forces.
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