National Interest

Biden Needs to Commit to Victory in Ukraine

By making clear that it intends to empower Ukraine to victory rather than manage the conflict, the Biden administration could demonstrate to Putin the futility of escalation.

Peter Rough Hudson Institute
Peter Rough Hudson Institute
Senior Fellow and Director, Center on Europe and Eurasia
Senior Fellow (Nonresident)
A soldier of Ukraine's 5th Regiment of Assault Infantry fires a US-made MK-19 automatic grenade launcher towards Russian positions in less than 800 metres away at a front line near Toretsk in the Donetsk region on October 12, 2022,
A Ukrainian soldier fires a US-made MK-19 automatic grenade launcher near the front lines of the conflict in the Donetsk region on October 12, 2022. (Dave Clark/AFP via Getty Images)

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 hit Europe like a thunderclap on a sunny day. In Paris, the head of military intelligence, General Eric Vidaud, was promptly fired for failing to predict the war. Germany’s chief of foreign intelligence, Bruno Kahl, had to be evacuated from Kyiv, where he was preparing for talks as Russian hit squads descended on the Ukrainian capital.

By contrast, the United States not only predicted the invasion but also anticipated significant aspects of its operational design. As General Thierry Burkhard, the French Chief of Defense, told Le Monde shortly after the war began, “The Americans said that the Russians were going to attack, they were right.”

Yet the US intelligence edge has been dimmed by an enduring policy flaw. Both the collapse of deterrence before the war and Russia’s escalatory steps since then are attributable to a mistaken strategic mindset in the Biden administration. This approach, which we hereby dub the strategy of confinement, has run its course. It is time for the Biden administration to adopt a new strategy that makes Ukrainian victory the chief objective.

The Strategy of Confinement

Ukraine’s dramatic breakthrough in Kharkiv cast a spell of inevitability over the war. In the West, the attack marked a decisive moment—the battle in which Ukraine transitioned from defense to counteroffensive. Yet, the rout of Russian troops concerned Ukraine’s Western partners nearly as much as it exhilarated them. To them, Ukraine’s victories raised the specter of catastrophic success: a win so decisive could provoke Russia into crossing the nuclear threshold. In early October, President Joe Biden expressed this view when he likened the situation to the Cuban Missile Crisis and warned of “Armageddon.” Such handwringing is now commonplace in the West.

This is not how the Biden administration originally thought the conflict would go. Well before the first Russian soldiers poured into Ukraine, the United States assumed that a Russian military victory was inevitable. Instead of contesting Russia, it prioritized minimizing US war commitments. In December, amidst Russia’s troop build-up, the president told reporters that deploying US troops to Ukraine was “not on the table” before pivoting to talk of economic sanctions. At the same time, he warned Russian president Vladimir Putin that the United States would defend “every inch” of NATO territory. The message to the Kremlin was clear: Biden intended to confine Putin’s aggression to Ukraine but not stop it. Absent treaty commitments to do so, the United States would not directly intervene against Russia.

The strategy of confinement may have called for sacrificing Ukraine to Russian aggression but it rested on a certain logic: a war-weary American public would not entertain direct US intervention. If presented with the stark choice between war and peace, with little room to maneuver in between, the only sensible option for the president was to stand down. War with Russia, after all, would be anything but a “foreign policy for the middle class.”

But then Ukraine did something that stunned the world: it began winning all on its own. Surprised, the Biden team adjusted its tactics but maintained the same strategic concept. It pledged to support Ukraine (after all, how could it not) but structured its assistance to keep the war confined within Ukraine’s borders. The tell was in the pattern of US military aid. When Ukraine suffered setbacks, the United States rushed new weapons to Kyiv but once the conflict stabilized, Washington slowed or denied Ukraine’s requests for still more systems. This attempt to carefully manage the war, dialing up and turning down assistance as the front-line ebbed and flowed, remains the essence of American strategy to this day. If Russia wasn’t going to steamroll Ukraine, as the Biden team realized, then the American role would be to forge a military balance in Ukraine that would eventually lead to a negotiated settlement.

But the strategy of confinement was never intended to deliver victory for Ukraine. Over the past month, the Biden administration has sought in vain to reassert control over the conflict. To warn its ally against blasting through enemy lines, for example, it leaked a highly damaging assessment to the New York Times that Ukraine had ordered the assassination in Moscow last August that claimed the life of Darya Dugina, the daughter of Russian nationalist Aleksandr Dugin. By painting Ukraine as reckless, the Biden team was announcing to the world that its support had limits. As Ukrainian troops charged across eastern and southern Ukraine, liberating an area larger than Biden’s home state of Delaware, the president was ready to tap the brakes.

The Empire Strikes Back

His Russian counterpart, however, was not playing along. On September 30, Putin chose to escalate the conflict by annexing four Ukrainian regions: Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson. Once incorporated, Putin could no more return the regions to Ukraine than Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy could accept their loss to Russia. Just days later, Putin doubled down by appointing General Sergei Surovikin, the head of Russian Aerospace Forces, as overall commander of the war.

To understand what the appointment of Surovikin meant to the West, it is important to understand the role Putin’s new commander played in Syria over the past decade. In 2017, as head of Russia’s air contingent near Latakia, Surovikin oversaw blood-curdling attacks on Syria’s civilian population. He was also likely complicit in the Syrian Arab Army’s chemical weapons attack that year on Khan Sheikun, an operation that it would not have carried out without his consent.

In his first few weeks on the job, Surovikin subjected Ukraine to the same terror he inflicted on Syria. Along the front lines, he has also attempted to plug Russia’s weak zones with call-ups from Russia’s mass mobilization—a decision Putin punctuated with threats of nuclear attack. Just as ominously, Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu began calling his Western counterparts in recent weeks to warn them of “dirty bombs.”

In the span of less than a month, Putin has mobilized the Russian population, threatened nuclear strikes, annexed Ukrainian territory, ordered Surovikin into command, and instructed his defense minister to suggest the use of weapons of mass destruction. The message he is signaling is simple: there will be no military balance leading to settlement, only victory or defeat.

In retrospect, the strategy of confinement not only failed to prevent but likely even incentivized Putin’s escalation. The West’s failure to deter Russia from invading Ukraine has been compounded by Biden’s unwillingness once the war began to endorse Ukraine’s goal of national liberation. As seen from the Kremlin, the Biden team’s fear of catastrophe suggests it would rather end the war than win it. By raising the stakes, Putin is slashing directly at what he believes is Biden’s Achilles’ heel.

Moreover, in Putin’s calculus, the longer the war drags on, and the deeper the economic recession cuts into the West, the harder it will be for the West to maintain high levels of support for Ukraine. In the pitched battle for Ukraine, a society’s ability to endure the stresses of war is of paramount importance. Putin’s wager is that the West will pressure Ukraine into accepting his terms before he is forced to bend to Ukraine’s.

Aligning With Ukraine

However, it is not too late for the Biden administration to choose a better way. By making clear that it intends to empower Ukraine to victory rather than manage the conflict, the Biden administration could demonstrate to Putin the futility of escalation. To be sure, Putin would snarl at the West in anger but he could not escape the stark choice between withdrawal and defeat. His forces are simply too weak to face down the West. Many of the same deficiencies that have plagued the Russian Armed Forces since the wars in Chechnya—poor logistics, flawed armor, and bad intelligence—continue to haunt it today.

If the United States aligns its posture with Ukraine’s, the war may still drag on but its outcome would no longer be in doubt. If Biden publicly committed the United States to support Ukraine for as long as it seeks to liberate its own territory, Putin could no longer hope for a Western diplomatic initiative to bail him out. The time is now for the Biden administration to embrace three lines of effort to underscore America’s commitment to Ukrainian victory and alter the conflict’s trajectory.

Arming Kyiv for Victory

First, Washington should provide Kyiv in large numbers with the same missile defense system that protects the American capital: the National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System (NASAMS). Since taking command of Russian forces, Surovikin has attacked Ukrainian civilians with missiles and Iranian loitering munitions. When coupled with anti-aircraft artillery in a layered air defense configuration, NASAMS can help blunt this terror campaign. Crucially, NASAMS fire variants of the same surface-to-air missile baseline (AIM-120 AMRAAM) that many Western states maintain in their own arsenals, making it possible to regularly resupply Ukraine’s air defense systems.

Second, the Biden administration should pair its provision of defensive weapons with a new attitude toward offensive operations, providing the logistical and material assistance to allow Ukraine to implement the Cold War-era concept of a Follow-on Forces Attack (FOFA). The underlying idea animating FOFA is to attrit an opponent’s forces before they can converge on one’s core defensive lines by conducting deep strikes against enemy formations in the adversary’s rear. This is accomplished by striking assembly areas, transportation links, and high-value targets such as command posts, missile launchers, and logistics hubs.

To execute the FOFA strategy Ukraine requires items that the United States is uniquely situated to provide: the MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) and the MQ-1C Gray Eagle drone. To date, Washington has declined to provide either platform.

While Ukraine has launched impressive strikes on Russian logistics using existing Western-supplied Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS) and Turkey’s TB-2 drones, ATACMS enjoy more than triple the range of Ukraine’s current High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS). For its part, the MQ-1C’s advanced sensors and its AGM-114 Hellfire missiles would mark a true leap for Ukraine. Particularly, the Gray Eagle’s synthetic aperture radar, along with its moving target indicator, would assist Ukraine’s HIMARS and other MLRS units by providing sensitive, real-time intelligence to support strikes. After briefly considering transferring four Gray Eagles to Ukraine in June, the administration ultimately decided against it over the summer. Now is the time to revisit that decision.

Most ambitious of all, the Biden administration should support these efforts with an F-16 fighter aircraft capability development program for the Ukrainian Air Force. After scuttling Poland’s offer to provide Ukraine with MIG-29 fighter jets in the opening phase of the conflict, the United States has since transferred to Ukraine the AGM-88 anti-radiation missile to attack enemy air defenses. The United Kingdom recently announced that it would send AMRAAM missiles for air defense. Both assets can be fired from F-16s. In fact, the AGM-88 can only reach its full potential if paired with the F-16s’ targeting pods, while F-16s armed with AMRAAM missiles would give Ukraine superior aerial warfighting capabilities. If the Biden team needs a reason to justify an F-16 program, the AGM-88 and AMRAAM missiles are it.

Third, the United State should supply Ukraine with advanced armor for combined-arms warfare. The most obvious candidate for Ukraine today is the German Leopard-2 tank, of which more than 2,000 exist across thirteen European countries that are all supported by a robust market in spare parts. At times, some of these countries have shown interest in supplying the Leopard-2s but Germany has resisted. Time and again, Berlin has argued that it will not supply Ukraine with new weapon systems unilaterally but only as part of a coalition and only after other Western powers initiate the first transfers. This makes it crucial that the United States deliver even a single M1 Abrams tank to Ukraine to unlock the formation of a European consortium with enough capacity to immediately donate at least ninety Leopard tanks to Ukraine—large enough to outfit an armored brigade. At a time when Russia is fielding obsolete tanks on the front lines, such a brigade could make a significant difference.

From Empire to Nation-State

In Putin’s KGB-indoctrinated mind, the vast areas stretching from Turkic Asia to the Baltic Sea are mere geographic expressions. If he succeeds in Ukraine, he will set his sights on other former Soviet republics, and possibly even on former Warsaw Pact states. The Western playbook should therefore be to break Russia’s claims of empire and force it into a world of nation-states. The future of the European order is being decided on the battlefields of Ukraine. The United States should empower Ukraine to expel Russian forces from its territory. So long as Ukraine has the will to fight, the United States should support it.

Read in the National Interest.