Nicholas D. Kristof: Biden should give Ukraine what it needs to win

It is also important to send a message — to Xi Jinping as well as Putin — that invasions do not pay.

(Brendan Hoffman | The New York Times) A resident navigates rubble left behind when a Russian missile struck a building the previous day in Vyshhorod, Ukraine on Nov. 24, 2022.

Russian air force pilots are scaredy-cats who have been surprisingly absent over Ukraine. Russian ground forces are being mowed down as cannon fodder, and one of the best-known examples of Russian military discipline involves an officer using a sledgehammer to execute a fellow Russian.

But the Russian war effort does excel in some areas:

• It stands out at committing atrocities. In my interviews in Ukraine, I was struck by how commonly Russian troops engaged in torture, rape and pillage.

• Russia’s government has become a leader in child trafficking, transferring more than 6,000 Ukrainian children to Russia or Russian-controlled territory, with some put up for adoption.

• Russia has manipulated Western fears that it might use nuclear weapons, thus deterring the United States from fully supporting Ukraine in this war. We give Ukraine enough to survive but, so far, not enough to win.

So a year after Vladimir Putin’s all-out invasion of Ukraine, it’s time for President Joe Biden to reassess and give Ukraine what it needs to end this war and save Ukrainian and Russian lives alike.

“We are well past the point of trying to measure this a few systems at a time,” said James Stavridis, a retired four-star admiral and supreme allied commander at NATO. “Putin is all-in, and we should be as well. That means fighter aircraft, ATACMS, high-end anti-ship cruise missiles — the kitchen sink.”

More on specific hardware in a moment. But many military experts agree that while Biden has generally done well in supporting Ukraine, we should be doing even more.

“We’re modulating what we’re giving Ukraine,” said Wesley Clark, a retired four-star general and NATO supreme allied commander. “We’re bleeding out the Ukrainians. People are dying as a result.

“If we want to end the war with a negotiated peace, we have to figure out the battlefield situation that will lead to a successful negotiation,” Clark added. “That probably requires going after Crimea in a serious way to convince Putin that he can’t win.”

It is also important to send a message — to Xi Jinping as well as Putin — that invasions do not pay. Of all the geopolitical nightmares ahead, perhaps the most horrific is a war over Taiwan — and one way to reduce that risk may be to ensure that Putin lives a nightmare today.

So this is not just about Ukraine. Viktor Yushchenko, a former president of Ukraine who was mysteriously poisoned after he challenged Russian interests, said that Ukraine is a hostage in the larger Russian challenge to the global order. “It is disappointing that the West has failed to grasp this and to define what victory really means. It is not just ensuring that Ukraine wins, but also guaranteeing future international security.”

To his great credit, Biden has strongly backed Ukraine, held together support of allies and provided training for Ukrainian forces and increasingly powerful weaponry. Over time, the United States has agreed to send HIMARS rocket launchers, Patriot missile systems and M1 Abrams tanks — although the Patriots and Abrams tanks have yet to arrive.

Biden has pursued gradualism because of legitimate concerns that if Putin is backed into a corner, he could lash out at NATO territory or use tactical nuclear weapons.

“We believe it would be irresponsible if we weren’t thinking about escalation,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, and that’s true. But most analysts think it is unlikely that Putin would use tactical nuclear weapons, partly because they would achieve little on the battlefield and would antagonize China and India.

“Why would they do this in a fit of anger and get all the negative outcomes?” asked Ben Hodges, a retired lieutenant general and commander of Army forces in Europe. “I think we have just deterred ourselves.”

While the risk of escalation can’t be ruled out, it must be balanced against the risks of allowing this conflict to drag on as Ukrainians and Russians are killed daily. Putin will negotiate seriously when he sees no military path forward — and that may happen if his hold on Crimea becomes untenable.

“Right now, what’s decisive is Crimea,” Hodges added. With the right support and long-range precision weaponry, he believes, Ukraine could cut the land and sea bridges that connect Russia to Crimea, even liberate Crimea by the end of the summer.

That would present risks — but also could set the stage for negotiations and an end to the war.

Hodges recommends Biden provide Ukraine with ATACMS long-range missiles and powerful Gray Eagle drones while supporting the transfer of MiG-29 and F-16 fighter aircraft to Ukraine. I think Biden will get there eventually, but lives would most likely be saved if he got there this month rather than six months from now.

“The quickest way to end the killing is to help Ukraine win the war,” Hodges said.

Nicholas D. Kristof | The New York Times (CREDIT: Damon Winter/The New York Times)

Contact Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof or by mail at The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.