VLADIMIR PUTIN, to borrow a phrase from George H.W. Bush, is in deep doo-doo. Thanks in no small measure to the weapons that Washington is sending, Kyiv continues to defy Moscow’s war of aggression. Unfortunately, bad advice is starting to seep out from Washington that could cause Ukraine to lose and Putin to extend his imperial adventure to Poland or the Baltic states. In a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post, for example, Brendan Rittenhouse Green and Caitlin Talmadge argue that the Biden administration’s increasingly muscular actions in Ukraine may prompt Putin to go nuclear. The only sensible option, according to them, is to appease the bad guys.
If only. Backing down is dangerous. Confrontation is not. Now is the time for Washington to bring the hammer down on Russian president Vladimir Putin and his lackeys. Modern Russia has never been weaker, and Putin cannot afford to escalate. Washington needs to send planes, multiple launch rocket systems, and anti-aircraft systems so that Kyiv can win the war by Christmas. Retaking the Donbas is eminently doable. Crimea is another matter, and a much more difficult one. A long-term policy of refusing to recognize Crimea as part of Russia is probably the best we can do, as the United States did with the Baltic states in the Soviet period.
Here’s the deal: four months in, Putin has achieved none of his major goals and taken only two major cities while incurring enormous losses. British intelligence estimates that Moscow has lost one-third of the armed forces it has committed. Yet he shows no sign of relenting, nor do the Ukrainians.
Ukraine easily won phase one, repelling the Russians from Kyiv and forcing them to retreat to the Donbas. Then Putin went after the major cities in the south and east. The effort flopped. His third try was indiscriminate bombing like the Aleppo-style tactics we witnessed in Mariupol to intimidate ordinary people to surrender. No dice.
The Kremlin pivoted to phase two in April. Moscow has pulled more troops away from Kharkiv in the north to focus on the Donbas and Ukraine’s coast. Russia’s strategy is failing. The Russian army isn’t ten feet tall, as most analysts and intelligence organizations believed at the outset, and the Ukrainian army is much taller than anyone thought. Andriy Zagorodnyuk, the former defense minister and chairman of the Center for Defense Strategies in Kyiv, repeatedly said that the Ukrainian forces underwent serious reform since 2014, and that their strength and motivation exceed anyone’s expectations. How right he was!
The Green and Talmadge argument is emblematic of a broader phenomenon. Realists, who began by predicting that Russia would overrun Ukraine in a matter of days, are now sounding the opposite alarm—that Ukraine may overrun Russia. Which is it? They’re now advising the United States to dial things down and push Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table as soon as possible. These counsels of despair ignore the fact that neither side is willing to negotiate in earnest at this point.
Another strange argument masquerading as fiscal prudence comes from the conservative Heritage Foundation, where oil paintings of Ronald Reagan are a common sight. The think tank pretended to support Ukraine while it urged Congress to sink Biden’s $40 billion supplemental Ukraine bill. One Heritage spokesperson claimed the bill is “short-sighted and puts America’s interests last.” Heritage is forgetting its heritage. In reality, as any good Reaganite knows, $40 billion is a trifling price to pay to defeat Putin and keep Europe free, safe, and whole, which, incidentally, happens to be in America’s national interest.
If we want a lasting and durable peace in Europe, with Russia contained, the West should arm Ukraine to the teeth. Kyiv will continue to fight. Putin cannot order a draft without enraging his countrymen. Nor does Russia command the resources to arm draftees properly, let alone possess the time and resources to train them, and the equipment ready to kit them out. The moment to strike is now. Putin’s madcap war will go on for months, if not years, and likely devolve into a frozen conflict if the West goes wobbly.
This is no time to flinch. Moscow has played the frozen conflict game to its advantage in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. No more. We can’t let Putin get away with it in Ukraine, where the stakes are vastly higher. In the real spirit of Reagan and the defense of free peoples against tyranny, the West must act now. As former General Phil Breedlove never tires of saying: “Right place, right time, right equipment.” This should be Washington’s mantra until Kyiv prevails.
Melinda Haring is the deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. She tweets @melindaharing.