The forced withdrawal of Russian troops from the northern outskirts of Ukraine’s capital city of Kyiv was a major setback for Vladimir Putin’s hopes to bring Ukraine back under Russian control, but it still falls far short of the claims by Biden administration officials that Putin had suffered a decisive “strategic defeat.”
The war in Ukraine is far from over. The troops Putin withdrew from northern Ukraine last week are being redeployed to reinforce the more successful Russian army drive in the eastern Donbas section of Ukraine. In the south, surrounded Ukrainian fighters are still holding out in sections of the heavily bombarded strategic port town of Mariupol, which has been cut off from outside supplies and under siege for four weeks.
Russia’s military withdrawal from the area around Kyiv is a tacit admission that Putin’s initial invasion plan failed. He had counted upon a rapid initial advance, against weak opposition, to capture the capital city and decapitate the Zelensky government. But Putin had vastly underestimated the willingness and ability of Ukraine’s badly outgunned military to block the initial Russian thrust, and overestimated the ability of his generals to plan and lead a successful multi-prong invasion.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, was surprisingly successful in rallying the support of the Ukrainian people with his courageous personal example. It was typified by his defiant response to a US offer to evacuate him on the first day of the invasion, declaring, “I need ammunition, not a ride.” The groundswell of respect and sympathy for Ukraine that Zelensky generated across free world forced a reluctant President Biden and NATO leaders to supply Ukraine with enough effective defensive weapons, such as portable Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and Javelin anti-tank weapons, to withstand the initial Russian assaults.
Biden and NATO initially held out little hope for Ukraine’s survival as an independent country. They had not expected Ukraine’s army to put up much of a fight, nor did they expect Zelensky to rise to meet the challenge with the same courage and eloquence with which Winston Churchill rallied the morale of the British people in the darkest days of 1940 and led them to victory in World War II.
FROM BLITZKRIEG TO STANDOFF
Five weeks after the war started, the basic character of the conflict changed from a lightning Russian blitzkrieg into a grinding war of attrition which both sides now seem confident they can win. The front lines have stabilized in a rough standoff between the two armies, which are engaged daily in hard fighting in dozens of separate battles. In the east, reinforced Russian forces have been making slow progress in their efforts to complete their takeover of the disputed Donbas provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. But in the south, Ukrainian fighters have stymied Russian efforts to advance towards the major Black Sea port of Odessa and create a land bridge to the Crimean Peninsula, which Putin invaded and then annexed in 2014.
Last week, Biden officials said that according to US intelligence, Putin had been misinformed by his closest advisers about the severity of Russia’s military problems in Ukraine, because they were afraid to tell him the truth. This has led to what US officials say appears to be a rift opening up between Putin and his defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, who had been among the most trusted members of the Kremlin inner circle. Russian officials denied the claim as a “complete misunderstanding” of the situation.
BIDEN REFUSING TO COMMIT TO A UKRAINIAN VICTORY
However, the Biden administration has refused to give reporters a direct answer when asked whether Ukraine’s army and civilian fighters, if supplied with the necessary US arms and equipment, could actually win the war and drive the Russian troops out of their country.
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan sidestepped that question last week when it was asked explicitly by RealClearPolitics. “What I said was that Russia is never going to take Ukraine away from the Ukrainian people,” Sullivan said, deliberately misinterpreting the question’s intent, and then reiterated that Russia, “is never going to be able to subjugate the Ukrainian people.”
Meanwhile, both sides are beginning to show the strain from the prolonged fighting. Putin has been forced to transfer poorly trained and equipped Russian troops stationed in eastern sections of his vast country to replace the losses in men and material, estimated to be as high as 20%, suffered by the Russian invasion force. The US and its NATO allies, which had initially supplied Ukraine with small arms and defensive weapons drawn from their military stockpiles, have been forced to order the production of new weapons and munitions on an emergency basis to prevent their inventories from falling to dangerously low levels.
US WEAPONS INVENTORY GETTING RAPIDLY DEPLETED
The Democrat chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Adam Smith, and Mike Rogers, the committee’s ranking Republican member, recently sent a joint letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin demanding to know how and when the Pentagon plans to replace the Stinger anti-aircraft rockets it has sent to Ukraine. The US has also sent Ukraine about 4,600 Javelin anti-tank weapons, which have been very effective at knocking out Russian tanks, but that number also represents more than half of the total of 8,885 Javelins that the Pentagon has bought over the past decade.
In a recent email, Congressman Rogers said the Biden administration “has consistently slow-walked sending critical lethal aid to Ukraine. The White House should be haunted by the knowledge of the impact that US Stingers, more Javelins, Switchblades, and air-defenses, would have had if they were provided pre-invasion.”
But an unnamed Biden White House official was quoted in an NBC News report rejecting the criticism that the administration has moved too slowly and failed to give Ukraine all the weapons it needs, and said that the US and NATO military training that the Ukrainian army has received in recent years deserves some of the credit for its current successes on the battlefield against the Russian army.
“Armchair generals keep searching for some magical weapon that would be the difference maker, when the actual difference maker is staring them in the face — it’s the thousands of weapons of all sorts we’ve already delivered, which have kept the Ukrainians in the fight, sent the Russians into retreat, and ultimately will lead to Putin’s failure,” the official said.
SURVIVAL IS A POOR SUBSTITUTE FOR VICTORY
Another bipartisan group of 25 House and Senate lawmakers, some of whom have recently visited Eastern Europe, has written the White House demanding that the US provide Ukraine with the necessary weapons to defeat the Russian invaders. “The US mission in Ukraine must go beyond ensuring the country merely has the means to defend itself against Russian aggression,” the letter said. “The strategy must deliver Ukraine necessary weapons to defend itself, counter the Russian forces’ advance, and give the Ukrainian people a chance to win this war.”
Retired US Army General Ben Hodges has expressed the same concern, noting that the White House lacks “the sense of urgency that is needed to help the Ukrainians turn the tide. It seems as if we are giving them enough to keep them from losing, but not enough to help them win.” Several US military experts, in addition to Hodges, are now calling for the Pentagon to start providing Ukraine with more modern US weapons capable of intercepting Russian missiles, destroying Russian tanks and heavy artillery, and attacking the Russian naval ships that have been bombarding Ukraine’s southern coastal cities.
John Herbst, a former US ambassador to Ukraine during the George W. Bush administration, said the current effort to send weapons to Ukraine “may end up being enough, but it’s far from what it should be.”
THE WAR IN UKRAINE ISN’T OVER YET
Another problem is the overly complacent attitude of the Biden administration toward the current military situation in Ukraine. It assumes that because Zelensky’s government has survived the initial invasion and pushed some of the Russian forces back, Putin has already lost the war and its time for the US to start pressuring Zelensky to accept almost any ceasefire deal, even on Putin’s terms. For example, in a CNN interview Sunday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “If you step back and look at this, this has already been a dramatic strategic setback for Russia and, I would say, a strategic defeat.”
But as a Wall Street Journal editorial points out, the Russian military, despite its poor performance on the battlefield and its forced retreat from the region around Kyiv, still holds the upper hand in much of eastern and southern Ukraine, and is currently regrouping for fresh attacks.
“Russia has killed thousands of Ukrainians, inflicted untold damage, and still controls more territory than it did before the invasion,” the editorial reminds us. “If Mr. Putin secures a truce that ratifies those territorial gains, he will have snatched the part of Ukraine that contains the bulk of its energy resources. He would be able to re-arm and continue as a lethal threat to the rest of Ukraine, the Zelensky government, and the border nations of NATO.”
As long as the Russian military still controls Ukrainian territory, the war is far from over. The editorial sympathizes with Zelensky’s “frustration with the reluctance of the U.S. and NATO to provide the heavy weapons Ukraine needs to go on offense and retake lost territory…”
The editorial also says that, “The West’s goal shouldn’t be some abstract ‘strategic defeat’ but an actual defeat that is obvious to everyone, including the Russian public. Ukraine will have to decide how long it is willing to fight. But as long as it is willing, the US and NATO should provide all of the military and sanctions support it needs.”
NATO’S CURRENT REVIVAL IS PUTIN’S NIGHTMARE
Another important change since the invasion started, one that has not received much media coverage, has been the deployment of a total of about 40,000 NATO troops, in eight combat ready battle groups, to NATO member states near the Russian border stretching from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south.
NATO began deploying these multinational battle groups in 2017, in Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, NATO has dispatched four more battlegroups to shore up the defenses of Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia. The deployment is intended to deter Putin from carrying out his threats to widen the current scope of the war beyond Ukraine’s borders. The largest NATO multinational battle group, made up of about 10,000 troops, is stationed in Poland, in support of the 120,000 soldiers in the Polish army. The second largest of the NATO battle groups, almost 5,000 soldiers, is newly stationed in Romania.
The NATO battlegroups, mostly made up of soldiers from the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and Germany, are being supported by the deployment of more NATO warships and warplanes to the region.
The strong reinforcement of NATO’s military presence along the Russian border was exactly what Putin did not want. For years, Putin has been complaining that the expansion of the NATO military alliance to include former Soviet republics such as Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, and former Soviet-dominated countries such as Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary, represented a potentially serious national security threat to Russia.
WAS THE US-UKRAINE STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIP DEAL A MISTAKE?
Some foreign policy analysts believe that Putin decided to go forward with invasion of Ukraine because of the signing, last November 10, of a US-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership by Secretary of State Blinken and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.
The preamble to the partnership agreement includes a paragraph which says that, “the United States and Ukraine emphasize unwavering commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders, including Crimea and extending to its territorial waters in the face of ongoing Russian aggression, which threatens regional peace and stability and undermines the global rules-based order.”
The second section of the agreement, dedicated to “Security and Countering Russian Aggression,” includes a statement that, “the United States supports Ukraine’s right to decide its own future foreign policy course free from outside interference, including with respect to Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO.” Putin no doubt saw that as a red flag for Russian security, as well as an effort to block his oft-stated aspirations to bring Ukraine back under Russian control.
The same section of the partnership says that the US sees Putin’s “seizure and attempted annexation of Crimea, and the Russia-led armed conflict in parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine,” as “aggression and violations of international law.”
Critics of the partnership agreement say it needlessly provoked Putin without giving Ukraine the implied protection of an explicit US endorsement of its desire to join NATO, or a separate US commitment to come to Ukraine’s defense if it came under Russian attack.
ZELENSKY, BUT NOT BIDEN, READY TO GO ON THE OFFENSIVE
Because the nature of the war has changed, President Zelensky is now asking the US and NATO to also supply him with offensive weapons, such as Soviet-era tanks and warplanes still in the military inventories of several Eastern European NATO states such as Poland and Slovakia, which Ukraine’s soldiers and pilots already know how to use.
Since the first days of the war, Zelensky has been issuing public calls for the US and NATO to send him the MiG-29 fighter planes that Poland had announced it was willing give to Ukraine with US permission. That put President Biden in the awkward position of trying to explain to the American people that he had vetoed the offer out of fear that Putin might use it as an excuse to further escalate the fighting.
Biden’s rationale for denying Ukraine the MiGs was never convincing, and it became steadily less credible as Putin continued to escalate Russia’s attacks on Ukraine without bothering to wait for a further provocation from NATO to serve as an excuse. For example, Putin has been using the most sophisticated weapon in Russia’s arsenal, its state-of-the-art hypersonic cruise missiles, to attack high value Ukrainian military targets. It is therefore hard to believe that the Russian leader would feel seriously threatened or provoked by the NATO transfer to Ukraine of a few dozen used 30-year-old MiG-29 fighters.
With the Biden administration now telling the New York Times that it has agreed to arrange the transfer of Soviet-era tanks from unspecified sources to Ukraine, it is difficult to understand why Biden still feels that sending Ukraine the spare MiGs that Poland has offered, and that Zelensky has pleaded for, would be too risky.
The US has also been dragging its feet in responding to Zelensky’s requests for the transfer of Soviet-era Russian S-300 air defense systems that are still in the inventories of three East European NATO members, Bulgaria, Greece, and Slovakia. The original S-300 system was first deployed by the Soviet Union in 1978, and was used mostly to defend the area around Moscow. It is an integrated radar and missile interceptor system capable of detecting and shooting down both low-flying and high-flying enemy supersonic strike aircraft at ranges of up to 55 miles or more. The S-300’s capabilities were upgraded with the introduction of five newer models over the next 30 years, when it was replaced by Russia’s current S-400 system.
The S-300 provides far more protection against attacks by distant, high flying warplanes, and even some missiles, than the hand-held Stinger missiles, which are effective only against nearby, low-flying aircraft. However, unlike the MiG-29 Soviet-era fighter jets that Zelensky has requested, the S-300 is a purely defensive system with no offensive capabilities with which to threaten Russia or its troops.
BIDEN AND HIS ADMINISTRATION STILL DODGING THE ISSUE
Two weeks ago, at the same White House press event where Biden refused to walk back his controversial adlib statement in Poland that Putin must not be permitted remain in power, a reporter asked him whether that remark, if allowed to stand, would give Putin “an excuse for escalation.” Biden cut off the question and immediately responded, “I don’t care what he [Putin] thinks… Given his recent behavior, people should understand that he is going to do what he thinks he should do. Period. He’s not affected by anybody else.” It was not clear whether that statement also meant that Biden is no longer afraid that sending MiGs to Ukraine might provoke Putin, and the White House reporters present failed to follow up on that point.
However, when White House communications director Kate Bedingfeld was later asked by Philip Wegman, a writer for RealClearPolitics, for a clear statement that Biden is ready to provide the offensive weapons Zelensky has requested for the war going forward, like Jake Sullivan, she avoided providing a direct answer.
Bedingfield insisted that there should not be “any question” about the fact that Biden “is doing everything in his power to support Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression…”
“I think what’s important here is our actions,” she said. “We’ve provided the weapons to Ukraine. We continue to support Ukraine. We continue to do everything in our power to ensure that they have what they need.” But she did not say whether that meant that the US will provide whatever Ukraine needs to win the war with Russia, or just enough to avoid losing it.
Similarly, when President Biden delivered his major speech in Poland two weeks ago about the war in Ukraine, he spoke in grandiose terms of “the great battle for freedom: a battle between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression, between a rules-based order and one governed by brute force.” He also warned that, “We need to be clear-eyed. This battle will not be won in days or months either. We need to steel ourselves for the long fight ahead.”
But Biden did not reveal his most desired outcome for the war in Ukraine — a continued stalemate which would leave Ukraine’s fate as an independent country still undetermined, or a clear defeat of the Russian invaders.
ZELENSKY’S GROWING FRUSTRATION
In recent days, President Zelensky has repeatedly called upon NATO to send him tanks, planes, missile defense systems, and anti-ship missiles, in addition to the antitank and antiaircraft weapons that NATO has been sending to Ukraine in large numbers since the war started.
Zelensky also rejected the false distinction that the Biden administration has been making between supplying Ukraine with defensive weapons and offensive weapons. “Ukraine needs military assistance, without restrictions,” Zelensky declared, just “as Russia uses, without restrictions, its entire arsenal against us.”
“You have thousands of fighter jets! But we haven’t been given any yet,” he said. “You have at least 20,000 tanks! Ukraine asked for 1% of your tanks to be given or sold to us,” and just now has received unofficial word of reluctant White House approval of that request.
Ukraine had already found one source of tanks, having captured at least 161 of them from Russian soldiers on the battlefield, according to the military analysis site Oryx. Russia is also believed to have captured 43 old Soviet-era Ukrainian tanks during the fighting, leaving Ukraine with a net gain of 118, in addition to an unspecified number of battle-damaged tanks left on the battlefield that Ukraine has repaired by using parts salvaged from other destroyed tanks.
But that will not be nearly enough to defeat a Russian military equipped with 12,400 tanks, more than any other army in the world, and three times the number of tanks in Ukraine’s inventory.
PLAYING PING PONG WITH UKRAINE’S WEAPONS REQUESTS
Zelensky has angrily criticized the West for playing “ping-pong” with proposed weapons transfers. “I’ve talked to the defenders of Mariupol today,” he said, referring to the besieged port city that has been the target of brutal Russia attacks for the past four weeks. “If only those [NATO leaders] who have been thinking for 31 days on how to hand over dozens of jets and tanks had 1% of their courage.”
Ukrainian commanders on the battlefield have told US reporters that they are frustrated by news reports claiming that America has sent them 100 sophisticated “Switchblade” drones which have yet to arrive. In addition, members of Congress who received a classified briefing from Pentagon officials on the current state of the war in Ukraine last week were reportedly frustrated by delays in the delivery of US military aid to Ukrainian fighters on the battlefield.
Former US diplomats, retired senior military officers, and many Republicans have harshly criticized the stubborn reluctance of the Biden administration before the Russian invasion to send Ukraine the more capable weapons that it is receiving now. They also note that the White House still has to be pressured from the outside into almost every significant step it has taken to help Ukraine, including putting a ban on US imports of Russian oil.
Last Friday, in an interview with Fox News host Bret Baier, Zelensky warned that if the delivery of promised US arms continues to be delayed, some Ukrainians may begin to believe that perhaps the Americans are playing games with them. That same day, the US Department of Defense announced that another $300 million worth of US military aid would be sent to Ukraine, including laser-guided rocket systems, armored off-road vehicles, and various calibers of ammunition. But when will they arrive on the battlefield in Ukraine?
At about the same time, Zelensky was telling Fox News, “We don’t want a million of fancy bullet proof vests or some special kind of helmets. Just give us missiles. Give us airplanes. If you cannot give us F-18s, or whatever you have, then give us the old Soviet-era planes [that Ukrainian pilots know how to fly]. That’s all. Give them into my hands. Give me something to defend my country with.”
ZELENSKY’S PEACE TERMS INCLUDE VICTORY FOR UKRAINE
With regard to the latest round of peace talks with Russia, Zelensky has said that Ukraine would be willing to end its efforts to join NATO and accept a “neutral status,” with sufficient security guarantees, to stop the fighting “without delay.” But Zelensky has also said that “a victory of truth means a victory for Ukraine and Ukrainians. The question is when it will end. That is a deep question. It’s a painful question. Besides victory, the Ukrainian people will not accept any [other] outcome.”
While a peace agreement is the rightful goal of every democratic country supporting Ukraine’s uphill fight to maintain its independence from Putin, it must not be peace at any price. That was the hard lesson the free world learned from the sellout by Britain and France of its ally, Czechoslovakia, with the pact they signed with Hitler at Munich in 1938.
Any lasting peace agreement with Putin will only be possible once Zelensky is in a stronger bargaining position due to a decisive defeat of the Russian military on the battlefield. That has not happened yet, and it cannot happen until the US and NATO start providing Zelensky with enough modern conventional weapons of all kinds that can match the capabilities of those being used by the Russian military in the weeks, and more probably months, ahead.
BIDEN’S MISSED OPPORTUNITY IN POLAND
Biden delivered a moving speech last month in Warsaw, describing the historic challenge the free world is now facing from the autocratic forces of evil that Putin represents. It was inspiring as far as it went, especially the part which warned us to be prepared for a long and difficult fight. But it lacked the necessary conclusion — a clarion call for all free nations to unite in support of Zelensky and his Ukrainian fighters. They must not hesitate to supply Ukraine with the military and economic tools needed to finish defeating the Russian army and rendering Putin powerless to harm the cause of world peace and democracy any further, while enabling Ukraine to emerge once again whole and free.
Instead, Biden indulged himself with a totally inappropriate closing comment, “For G-d’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” By so doing, he missed a golden opportunity to unite the free world behind a clear plan of action to save Ukraine and restore lasting peace in Europe. Biden also ruined the finest speech of his presidency and created the impression that the president of the United States had just publicly repudiated his country’s established policy against regime change.
THE NEED FOR UNITY IN A WAR OF GOOD AGAINST EVIL
Putin may be evil, but he is not the fundamental cause of the problem. There are several equally evil autocratic leaders in other countries today, including China, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, and Syria. They have formed an informal alliance to do battle with the forces of freedom and democracy, which they see as a threat to their own dictatorial power over their own people.
They cannot be defeated until the leaders of free and democratic states realize that we face nothing less than a life-or-death struggle, comparable to World War II, in which the forces of evil must be totally defeated.
Some nations have recognized that and are willing to do the right thing to help Ukraine to defeat Putin, despite any risk of a wider war. Great Britain has announced that it will provide Ukraine’s army with armored personnel carriers and other more lethal weapons. Poland, which still remembers its suffering under Soviet domination during the 45 years after World War II, is still pushing for Biden’s approval of its offer to transfer its Soviet-era MiGs to Ukraine.
The only mystery is why President Biden still refusing to agree to it. By doing so, he stands as an obstacle to a united effort by the world’s democracies to help Ukraine save itself with a clear victory over Putin and the Russian army. The problem was perhaps explained best by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, when he simply said, “Ukraine can win this fight if we help them win this fight.”
Perhaps it is time for Sullivan to deliver that message, loud and clear, to his boss.