The cost of Biden's complacency in Ukraine

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The sense of urgency in Washington and Brussels to get Ukraine the weapons and munitions they need to survive and ultimately defeat Russia — to win — is woefully lacking. 

President Joe Biden’s comments in the wake of Monday’s missile attack on Kyiv is evidence enough. He condemned the missile strike, describing the event as a “horrific reminder of Russia’s brutality.” But how many times has he said that? He followed that observation with “Washington and its NATO allies will be announcing this week new measures to strengthen Ukraine’s air defenses.”

This week? 

Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 — nearly two and a half years ago. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been calling for a no-fly zone since the onset of the war, something the U.S. and NATO have been reluctant to consider.

The need for this a no-fly zone is not new. Newsweek was already reporting on the need for it in March 2022 “as a way of preventing further Russian bombing attacks. At the time, Biden refused, on the grounds that “a no-fly zone could lead to violence between the U.S. and Russia.”

Although multiple air defense systems have since been introduced incrementally onto the battlefield, providing measurable results, the wartime process of action, reaction and counteraction continues to play out at the expense of Ukrainian military and civilian casualties alike.

And now there is yet another another reaction — new measures to strengthen Ukraine’s air defenses — to a Russian action. All this reaction is getting Ukrainian civilians killed. And once it goes into play, Russia will simply counteract it to restart the cycle — but not before achieving the maximum number of civilian deaths while the U.S. and NATO decide upon, fund, train and finally deploy their new measures.

That was clearly demonstrated in Kyiv on Monday. The Russian Kh-101 that hit a children’s hospital is “designed to defeat air defense systems by flying at low, terrain-hugging altitudes to avoid radar systems.” Ukraine needs the ability to strike the airfield from which the bombers are launched before they are airborne.

The military has a saying: “There are two types of people on the battlefield — the quick and the dead.” That is playing out before our eyes in real time. Russia, despite its World War I meatgrinder tactics, is learning and adapting away from the frontlines more quickly than the U.S. and NATO. 

The speed of Biden and the NATO bureaucracy that follows it is an existential threat to Ukraine’s existence. Ukraine is under attack now and needs relief now — not another announcement full of empty platitudes.

The United Kingdom answered the call on Wednesday when new British Prime Minister Keir Starmer reauthorized Ukraine to strike military targets inside Russia with Storm Shadow missiles, continuing the previous government’s policy on the use of its long-range weapons.

Poland is considering shooting down Russian missiles over Ukrainian territory. That proposal was met with an immediate response from National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby, who told reporters, “We want to look for ways to make Ukraine effective, but we don’t want escalation.”

Kirby continued, saying, “It wouldn’t be good for Ukrainians, it wouldn’t be good for Poles, it wouldn’t be good for would not be good for everyone else….We don’t want to give Putin arguments that the war was provoked by NATO, that it is a war between Russia and the West or between Russia and the U.S.” 

As then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan responded to President Jimmy Carter during a presidential debate in 1980, “There you go again.” Only now, it is more Biden administration escalation paralysis. 

The problem with the last U.S. action — authorizing limited ATACMS strikes against targets in Russia — is that the White House still affords the Russian military sanctuary within its own borders. Moscow is taking advantage of every kilometer ceded to them. Somehow, striking marginally deeper targets in Russia that pose an imminent threat to Ukraine is seen by the White House as escalatory — not defensive.

On Monday morning, Biden’s absurd rules of engagement limitations on Ukraine helped enable a Russian Kh-101 cruise missile, air-launched from a Tupolev Tu-95 bomber, to hit the Okhmadyt Children’s Hospital in Kyiv. The results were devastating. The post-strike images were horrific. 

The bomber that delivered the ordnance likely took off from an airfield in Russia — presumably Engles-2 Air Force Base — located beyond the 100 km restriction area the Biden administration has imposed upon Ukraine.

But that still had no bearing on the Biden administration. Kirby still told reporters Monday afternoon that U.S. policy would not change to allow Ukraine to strike deeper inside Russian territory. “There’s been no change in our policy. You saw the president several weeks ago give guidance to Ukraine that they can use U.S.-supplied weapons to strike targets just over the border. That’s still the case.”  

Patriot missile ambushes were a brilliant innovation the Ukrainian military incorporated into its defenses. It has now been taken off the list of options by the U.S., too. It was seen as an offensive use of the weapon system and therefore deemed escalatory. And so at Biden’s insistence, Ukraine continues to fight with one arm tied behind its back.

More air defense systems are necessary. An integrated air defense system is optimal. But what Ukraine really needs is to be able to strike Russian targets that present a threat now — deep in the interior of Russia, where the White House is giving the Russians sanctuary. Defeat the weapons system, not the missile. That is deterrence, not escalation. That is a response to an action — a Russian missile attack on Ukraine.

Putin continues to dictate conditions in Ukraine. The U.S. and NATO are allowing Moscow to retain the initiative, forcing Ukraine to play a game of “mother may I” when it comes to a military response. This is no way to win a war.

Carl Von Clausewitz wrote that “war is a continuation of politics by other means.” This week in Washington, as NATO leaders convene for their annual summit, that could not be a more accurate statement.

NATO must impose and then enforce red lines. Deeds, not words, must come out of this summit, including a plan to win and a pathway for Ukraine’s admission into NATO. 

Biden’s complacency is the root cause of Russian success in Ukraine. It is time he squares the circle and lets Ukraine take the fight to Russia.

Col. (Ret.) Jonathan Sweet served 30 years as a military intelligence officer and led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012 to 2014. Mark Toth writes on national security and foreign policy. 

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