Russia’s military is on the run in Ukraine. The Ukrainian military is steadily retaking towns and President Vladimir Putin of Russia has resorted to bombing civilians in desperation. He has already lost the strategic argument with 143 nations that voted in the UN General Assembly to condemn his actions. His military is fighting on two fronts, one in the east and the other in the south, attempting to toggle between them with a shocking lack of military planning, logistics, and leadership. His army’s losses — abandoned equipment and personal gear — are laid bare for all the world to see.
Russia is set to lose this war. But a Ukrainian victory is not assured unless the United States and its allies swiftly provide Ukraine the sophisticated military equipment it needs to push the Russian military completely out of the country.
The Russian military, suffering from low morale, inadequate equipment, and inept leadership, is no match for the high-morale Ukrainian forces. Operating from this position of military and strategic weakness, the Kremlin has launched a high-voltage intimidation campaign that includes the mobilization of up to 300,000 reservists, the illegal annexation of four Ukrainian provinces, and threats to use nuclear weapons.
Russia’s shakiness was on display again when a blast some suspect was set by Ukraine made impassable the $3.7 billion bridge linking the Crimean peninsula with Russia. In response, Putin authorized an 11-city artillery barrage on innocent Ukrainian civilians. Meanwhile, in the aftermath of a meeting with Putin, the Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko announced that Russian troops would be returning to his country and renewed the possibility of his country entering the war.
All these statements and actions were as symbolic as they were military, highlighting a push by Putin to scare the United States and its allies into curtailing support for Ukraine. Yet all of this makes it more urgent that the United States backs Ukraine with everything it can before the risk of NATO involvement grows greater.
First, the United States must pressure Belarus into staying out of the war, lest the conflict inadvertently be widened. Belarus borders three NATO countries — Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland, which also separate Belarus from the Kaliningrad enclave, a Russian territory surrounded by Poland, Lithuania, and the Baltic Sea. Russia has tried several times to negotiate special transit access from Belarus to Kaliningrad through a narrow strip of Polish territory known as the Suwalki Gap. If Belarus became more actively involved in the war, Russia might be tempted to violate this strip of NATO territory to test the alliance, and certainly the risk of accidental military attacks on NATO states would increase.
The United States and its allies must also provide Ukraine with the necessary equipment not only to oust Russian forces from its territory, but also to protect its civilians once and for all. On Thursday, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said after a meeting of top military officials from some 50 countries aiding Ukraine that “we’re going to do everything we can to make sure that they have what’s required to be effective.”
He didn’t specify what “everything” would entail, but it should include fighter aircraft — MIGs from neighboring states like Poland and older surplus F-16s — and longer-range sophisticated air defense systems like Patriot batteries or the Iron Dome from Israel to eliminate the incoming artillery killing Ukrainian noncombatants. The United States and NATO allies should also provide the modern M1 Abrams or German Leopard tanks so Ukraine can take advantage of its momentum on the ground. Finally, the United States should also provide more surface-to-sea missiles to allow Ukraine to take out more Russian ships and free Ukrainian ports.
Providing the equipment Ukraine needs to win as fast as possible does raise the risk of Russian escalation, but the West cannot back away from what it must do to minimize and hopefully eliminate the danger Russia presents to the world. It can’t trust Putin to abide by “peace” agreements or ceasefires. He will immediately (as often happened in Syria) or eventually (as we’ve seen in Ukraine) violate them.
By providing Ukraine a robust long-range air defense, the United States can help keep civilians safe from random reprisal attacks and protect critical infrastructure and the country’s cultural, religious, and artistic institutions. The air defense systems provided by Germany will cover four cities — a good start but not sufficient to “close the sky,” as the Ukrainians say. At the same time, if the United States provides the Ukrainian military with the equipment it needs — jets and drones — to provide close air support to their ground units, they will be able to outmaneuver Russian forces. Armored vehicles and anti-tank weapons will provide the lethal defensive means to keep the Russians at bay.
It is unclear how fast the United States can get this equipment to Ukraine, but Washington should do everything it can to speed up timelines using available stockpiles and lend-lease authority provided by Congress. The United States can work with partner countries around the world to identify available systems and aircraft in the Middle East, Asia, and other places not facing an urgent threat and work to purchase or transfer such weapons to Ukraine. It must also continue efforts to convince other countries to push Ukraine to the head of the line — as Egypt recently did to facilitate the provision of the new German air defense systems to Ukraine.
If the United States does not act now to provide the equipment, training, intelligence, and advice that it takes for Ukraine to exploit their current advantage to drive the Russians out, the alternative will surely be a longer war with more needless deaths. It will also continue to leave Georgia, Moldova, and even the eastern NATO allies at risk of accidental or intentional Russian military intervention. The war is at a critical inflection point. The United States should act and act decisively.
Evelyn Farkas is executive director of the McCain Institute at Arizona State University and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia in the Obama administration.