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As Washington emboldens Putin, Ukraine pays the price

Washington has done just about everything it can to embolden Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Congress’s inability to muster a vote to renew aid to Ukraine is only surpassed by the White House’s inability, over the last 24 months, to provide Ukraine the weapons and ammunition it needs to win. Neither can get beyond excuses, much to the benefit and approval of Putin. 

Putin has played the Americans well, as the war in Ukraine has taken a back seat to a partisan war on Capitol Hill. The Kremlin’s disinformation campaign is making up for its dismal performance on the battlefields of Ukraine. It has effectively taken the U.S. out of the fight for the last two months and for the near future, thanks in part to the 2024 presidential elections.

With Washington deadlocked, Russian ground forces captured Avdiivka. They are progressing across the entire 600-mile front. And the issue is not that Ukraine is failing to kill enough Russians. According to Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense, total Russian casualties on Oct. 9 were 282,630; by Feb. 20, they were reported to be 404,950. The Russians have no regard at all for the lives of their own troops. There are plenty of young men where those came from.

Winning the close fight in the trenches and bombed out cities still comes down to ammunition — small arms, grenades, 155mm artillery ammo, cluster bombs, anti tank missiles, and drones. 

Presently, Ukraine has abandoned positions because it lacks the ammunition to fight off the assaults. Sustaining the warriors at the pointy end of the spear is proving troublesome and perilous.

The U.S., by default, is enabling a Russian offensive that utilizes T-54 and T-55 tanks from the Korean War era and tactics emulating the frontal assaults of World War I. Sheer mass is winning. Not only is Ukraine in danger of losing the close fight, but its inability to consistently interdict the flow of Russian soldiers and their equipment into the country only compounds the situation on the front lines. 

Kyiv needs to break the cycle — to relieve the pressure. News that Russian forces are massing as many as 40,000 troops in Mariupol, 15,000 in the vicinity of Zenith and Avdiivka, and still more along the Kupiansk-Kreminna front should be greeted with HIMARS-delivered cluster munitions. The ordnance should not be concentrated solely on the Ukrainian side of the border, either. If they mass in Russia, they too should be on the receiving end of a HIMARS welcoming committee.

Not all is lost. Ukraine is still doing well in the strategic fight, with deep strikes into Russia’s interior and the Crimean Peninsula, targeting military bases and oil refineries. It is succeeding in the systematic destruction of the Black Sea Fleet. The Ukrainians have also removed senior Russian officers from the fight, most notably General Valery Gerasimov and Admiral Viktor Sokolov.

But that is not enough to win the war. Russian missiles and drones continue to strike Ukrainian cities, towns and villages, killing civilians. Air defense weapons provided by the U.S. and NATO are effective, but they cannot cover the entire country, nor engage every missile. Destroying the weapon system that launches the missile or drone at its point of origin would be a more effective technique if the West would permit deep strikes with their weapon systems beyond Ukraine’s border into Russia.

As Peter Dickinson put it, “As long as Western leaders insist on restricting Ukraine’s ability to strike back at Russia, Ukrainian commanders will be forced to continue fighting with a shield but no sword.”

Putin is turning losing into winning. By just about every metric used to measure battlefield success, Ukraine is winning — battle damage assessment, the numbers of Russian soldiers killed or wounded, damaged or destroyed weapon systems and equipment, etc. But they are yielding terrain to an inferior military with a seemingly endless supply of fresh bodies.

Despite the horrific losses, Putin continues his fallacy as a world leader and superpower — and the West is playing along. With Russian elections on the horizon, he finally secured that elusive victory in Avdiivka. 

To send a message to any political rivals and supporters from the West, he might have even had his imprisoned political rival Alexei Navalny killed. Similarly, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko’s chief political rival Ihar Lednik, a member of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party, reportedly died in his prison cell on Feb. 20 — “the fifth political prisoner to die behind bars in the last two years.”

Russia’s bullying tactics and threats were on full display last week, directed at NATO members. The Kremlin accused Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, Estonian Secretary of State Taimar Peterkop and Lithuanian Culture Minister Simonas Kairys of destroying or damaging Soviet monuments in memory of Soviet soldiers. The three Baltic State officials were placed on a wanted list for arrest.

Yuri Trutnev, the Russian deputy prime minister in charge of Far Eastern and Arctic affairs, sent a thinly veiled threat to Norway for its management of the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. In a meeting of the so-called “Government Commission on the Protection of Russian Presence at Spitsbergen,” Trutnev suggested that Russian rights in the Norwegian archipelago are under pressure, then tried to link the issue to the war in Ukraine. “Warriors are today spilling blood for the sovereignty of our country and the rights of people to speak the Russian language,” he stated. 

Disturbingly, this is the same Russian tactic previously employed to justify Russian interference in Georgia, the Donbass, Crimea and Moldova.

Then Dmitri Medvedev, Deputy Chairman of the Russian Federation’s Security Council, threatened the U.S. and Europe with with nuclear annihilation, should Russia lose the war in Ukraine and be forced to return to its recognized 1991 borders. His statement came shortly after the announcement by Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), Chair of the House Intelligence Committee, that he “had information concerning a serious national security threat,” which turned out to be a Russian nuclear anti-satellite capability.  

The Kremlin is throwing everything it has at the West to create uncertainty and exploit hesitancy. In the absence of U.S. funding, Ukraine has secured security guarantees from the United Kingdom, France, Germany and now Denmark. Sweden announced on Feb. 20 a $683 million package of military aid to Ukraine, and the European Union finally passed a 50 billion euro package for Ukraine.

The death of Alexei Navalny may pose one unforeseen outcome for Putin, which could become a game changer in Ukraine. President Biden is again considering ATACMS delivery to Ukraine, and the German government is being pressed to greenlight the Taurus cruise missile. 

Speed is of the essence. Putin believes victory is in sight. It is time for Washington to make it decisively clear that Russia will not win its war against Ukraine and the West. The killing stops when Russia is defeated.

Col. (Ret.) Jonathan Sweet served 30 years as a military intelligence officer. Mark Toth writes on national security and foreign policy.

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