Why is the Biden Administration Slow-Walking Military Aid to Ukraine?

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Russian MiG 29s

For nearly two months now I’ve been trying to hope for the best in Ukraine and think the best of what the United States has been doing to support it. I’ve tried to believe, as The Bulwark’s Jonathan Last put it way back on February 28, that “The West is winning, Russia is losing, and Biden has done a good job in Ukraine…. The West is stronger because of the actions of the Biden administration and Russia is weaker because of them. The last month has represented America’s best showing in foreign policy in a generation….”

That certainly seemed the case as the administration was reenergizing NATO, rallying allies from Norway to New Zealand, laying on what seem like crippling sanctions (though it’s too soon to tell), and ramping up shipments of Stinger and Javelin missiles, which the Ukrainians have used to great effect. But then came the fiasco of the MiGs, and the cracks started showing. 

Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy pled (and is still pleading) for higher-powered armaments: the tanks, howitzers, anti-aircraft batteries, and fighter jets his countrymen and women need to stop the savage bombing that the Russians have turned to after failing in the initial ground battle. As you likely recall, Zelenskyy even identified a ready source of planes: Soviet-era MiG-29 fighters sitting in Poland, Slovakia, and Bulgaria waiting to be replaced by US F-16s. Poland offered its MiGs if the U.S. would perform the handover so the Poles wouldn’t have to face Russian retribution alone. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said the delivery “gets the green light.” 

Then came the weaseling and sniping, between Americans and Poles and among American security agencies. Various spokespeople and “informed sources” at those agencies huffed that jets weren’t what the Ukrainians needed, that they might not be able to use them effectively on short on short notice, that delivering them would be tricky since the Russians would try to shoot them down, and, worst of all, that they would represent a dangerous “escalation.”

As the military scholar Eliot Cohen wrote in The Atlantic last month, “Each of these criticisms [and more that he calls out] was misplaced, and that is putting it kindly.” The Ukrainians have already surpassed every expectation and proven better judges of what works on their turf than anyone else, Russian or American. It’s not like they would have to learn a whole new weapon system; they already fly MiG-29s very effectively, though they’re vastly outgunned in the air. “They have proved by their skill and success that they can handle much more than we give them credit for,” Cohen wrote more recently. So rather than questioning whether they need fixed-wing aircraft or can use Western military hardware, the U.S. should err on the side of generosity,” to the tune of “tens of billions of dollars” 

Worse yet is what Cohen calls “the hand-wringing over escalation,” which still continues a month later. “On the face of it, that is an absurd notion. Javelins kill Russian soldiers. Stingers kill Russian pilots and soldiers. A MiG-29 is just one more weapon that would kill Russian pilots and soldiers.”

Short of sending in American boots or resupplying Ukraine with the nuclear weapons it gave up 28 years ago, it would be hard to escalate this war. The Russians are using every sort of heavy armament short of nukes and using it deliberately against hospitals, schools, and civilian residences. To whinge about bringing Ukraine a few steps closer to arms parity is ludicrous. 

The Biden administration keeps touting the $800 million he’s promised Ukraine, but says nothing about why or even whether it’s enough to sustain the country’s defense at this stage. Eight-hundred million is a rounding error in America’s wars, and Ukraine is much more strategically and symbolically important and much more committed to the fight than Iraq or Afghanistan was. If Zelenskyy says he needs more ammunition, give him the ammo. 

The need is even more urgent as the war enters a dire new phase. After failing to overrun the country, Putin has turned to dismembering it, concentrating his focus and forces in the southeast. There his troops enjoy advantages they didn’t have attacking on a broader front: ready supply lines; flat open steppes suiting their tank convoys rather than facing the guerrilla tactics the Ukrainians used so effectively in the north; naval support (minus one flagship cruiser); and the lessons learned from their arrogant bumbling in the war’s first phases. 

The Russian army may still be corrupt, incompetent, and criminally brutal, but it won’t make all the same mistakes twice. And the invasion now has a commander in the field—General Aleksandr Dvornikov, the butcher of Aleppo—so tactical decisions won’t have to come out of the fog of the Kremlin.  

This new phase of the war has already become bloodier and more bitter than all that came before, as the Russians do to Mariupol what Hitler’s Wehrmacht did to Stalingrad and tried to do to Leningrad. It bids to be long-running Syria-style meatgrinder, except that instead of just sending bombers and Wagner Group mercenaries to kill indiscriminately, Russia can now pour everything it’s got over the border.  

This is how guerrilla campaigns like Ukraine’s resistance to a more heavily armed Russian force traditionally end. The American revolutionaries harried the redcoats and depleted Britain’s will to fight, then ended the war in a pitched conventional siege at Yorktown. The Viet Minh wore down French control with guerrilla tactics, then finished it off using massed troops and artillery at Dien Ben Phu. Their heirs used a similar strategy to overcome the Americans and South Vietnamese. All relied on massive foreign support, from France and from China and the Soviet Union respectively, to bulk up for these final confrontations.

Now Ukraine needs that support, but still the whingeing and quibbling continue. The sanctions Biden touted so grandly may have crippled Russia’s economy but they haven’t done squat to change Putin’s behavior. And he can still sell enough gas and oil to finance his war machine. It’s encouraging to see that the administration is finally sending howitzers and armored vehicles, but those MiGs are still sitting in Polish hangars. And how about cruise missiles, now that the Ukrainians have shown how well they can use them? Their homemade Neptunes are only designed to hit ships. 

Even at the symbolic level the United States has fallen short. Boris Johnson, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and a red carpet’s worth of other European dignitaries have made solidarity visits to Kyiv. The U.S. hasn’t even sent a cabinet secretary.   

The Syria connection goes beyond General Dvornikov. The carnage in Ukraine descends directly from the carnage in Syria, and from Barack Obama’s sorriest moment, in 2013: when he declared that its dictator, Bashar al-Assad, would cross a “red line” if he deployed chemical weapons. They then deployed mustard and chlorine gas and Obama did… nothing. He refused to impose a no-fly-zone in Syria to stop the barrel- and cluster-bombing of cities, back when the only impediment was Syrian anti-aircraft guns. 

Obama laid out a characteristically eloquent and closely reasoned argument for this demurral, but at heart was a familiar pendulum swing: Generals fight the last war; politicians shirk the last war. Obama looked at how NATO intervened to stop Libya’s Muamar Qaddafi from doing to his people what Assad has done to his and Libya descended into civil war, and presumably thought, not again. (Then-Vice President Biden urged unsuccessfully against intervening in Libya.)

A million Syrian deaths and more than 12 million refuges and displaced Syrians later, which country is the bigger mess? There are degrees of bad, and Syria is worse. Libya was one of the few nations in Africa that voted to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council.

Russia moved into the vacuum the U.S. left in Syria, got a Middle Eastern beachhead, and honed the techniques of slaughter that it’s now using in Ukraine. I’ve got to think that Putin drew the reasonable inference that if Obama wouldn’t challenge Assad in Syria, his heir Biden wouldn’t get in the way in Ukraine. Likewise, Xi Jing Ping and his generals are now watching America’s response in Ukraine to gauge what it would do for Taiwan. 

The best way to protect Taiwan, not to mention Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Moldova, Poland, and Finland, is to stick by Ukraine. “A failure to adequately support Ukraine will have terrible consequences, and not just for that heroic and suffering nation,” Cohen writes in a new Atlantic essay.

“The United States has been unwilling to take some steps because of its own self-deterring beliefs about Russian behavior,” Cohen argues. In other words, because of the hobgoblin of “escalation,” which is code for “Russia has even more nukes than we do, so don’t push it too far.” This leads to a very dark thought: Might all the whingeing and slow walking of support be a matter of policy, not pusillanimity or red tape? Might America’s self-deterrence be an act of cynical realpolitik worthy of Henry Kissinger? 

Here’s how that thinking would work: Putin is isolated, obsessed, consumed with grievances and increasingly desperate. If he becomes too desperate, he just might let loose with nukes, not just on Ukraine but on Poland or the Baltic republics. If he sees he’s finished, would he take everyone down with him in one apocalyptic extravaganza?

The trick, then, would be to help Ukraine win, but only so much. Make Putin lose, but only so much: Leave him something he can call a victory—say the whole Donbas and a land bridge to Crimea—after bleeding his forces and his treasury. Or, as Zelenskyy bitterly put it, after we “fight to the last Ukrainian.”

This seems grievously mistakable. Mutually assured destruction is still mutual, and for all his bitterness, Putin is not some Game of Thrones mad king ready to take his entire country with him if he loses. Lay off with the regime-change talk (“This man cannot remain in power!”), but don’t sacrifice Ukraine’s integrity to Vladimir Putin’s tender feelings.

Sure, there’s risk in resisting aggression, but there’s more risk in not resisting. It’s a Hollywood cliché but a truth many of us learn the hard way on playgrounds or in barrooms: the surest way to have trouble is to tell a bully, “I’m not looking for trouble.”   

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Eric Scigliano has written on varied environmental, cultural and political subjects for many local and national publications. His books include Puget Sound: Sea Between the Mountains, Love War and Circuses (Seeing the Elephant), Michelangelo’s Mountain, Flotsametrics and the Floating World (with Curtis Ebbesmeyer), The Wild Edge, and, newly published, The Big Thaw: Ancient Carbon and a Race to Save the Planet.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Just to be clear, this is mainly about the MiGs, and the Ukrainian MiGs are now down to the point where there are pilots who can’t fly for lack of them? Do you see this as America’s decision to make, or NATO’s?

    • I was writing about more than the MiGs. But, I’m pleased though embarrassed to say, the situation has changed in the weeks that I incubated this piece until I could get time to write it, and in the two days it took to post on the site. It seems in good part overtaken by events. Prodded by public impatience, the administration has stepped up aid, other countries are also sending in heavier weaponry (i.e. Czech tanks), and even Germany, which has for historical and self-interested reasons been the most reluctant, says it will replace those Czech tanks with current models. Fighter jets still seem more useful to me than tanks–look what the Ukrainians have done to Russia’s tanks, and the muddy season has arrived. But it seems the Ukrainians are finally getting the arms they need, and fears of “escalation” are receding. The bigger questions now may be whether they’ll have the food they’ll need as the war upsets spring planting; famine is Russia’s other time-honored weapon. And whether Western powers will have the determination to fill that need in a time of food scarcity, and to stick in for a long, grueling war.
      Re. Donn Cave’s question, if each arms dispatch had to be approved by the whole NATO council of ministers, would anything arrive in time?

  2. Eric, to assume that the Russian war plan was to overrun Kyiv rather than a diversion is great propaganda – to assume that Ukraine is/has a chance to win is also wishful thinking, UNLESS we (NATO) enter the war. There is no mention of Zelensky’s refusal to not continue his quest to join NATO and the European Union and Biden’s stand, even though they knew it was Russia’s red line (BTW explain the benefit of Ukraine’s joining these groups, that justified taking the chance). Lastly, on something i know a bit about, never enter that barroom (with bullies) with out knowing the bartender well…….;)

  3. NATO aspiration as “red line” (since actual membership was nowhere near) seems to me Russian and Western leftist propaganda. Putin would never accept Ukraine becoming increasingly independent, liberal (in the classic sense), prosperous, and economically integrated into Europe, regardless of official affiliations or lack thereof.
    Good advice re. bartenders, though you can’t always know where the bullies are. Busdrivers can also be very good people to have on your side.

  4. “And how about cruise missiles, now that the Ukrainians have shown how well they can use them? Their homemade Neptunes are only designed to hit ships.”

    US needs to provide cruise missiles to Ukraine that can hit the Kremlin. Russian TV hosts are giggling about Russia attacking New York with nuclear missiles. We are dealing with another Hitler as you pointed out when you stated: “as the Russians do to Mariupol what Hitler’s Wehrmacht did to Stalingrad.” The world needs to treat the Russians to their own medicine by withholding food and giving the Ukrainians weapons to take the war to Russia.

  5. Increasingly it seems we can’t afford to have Russia “win” but we want to deny Ukraine that opportunity .
    Increasingly, I’m not buying it. Let Ukraine have the munitions it needs while this fragile NATO Coalition is still holding.

  6. What a force multiplier for Putin long term if he wins control of Odessa and keeps control of the rest of Ukraine’s SE territories. Worse yet, the West allows Russia to take over Ukraine in total. The value of controlling the distribution of all the Ukraine produced grains and other natural resources would win Russia the “allegiance” of all the countries we’ve learned depend on those resources.

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