U.S. Policy Refuses to Win in Ukraine

Ukrainian service members fire a shell from an M777 howitzer at a front line in Donetsk Region, Ukraine, November 23, 2022. (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty/Serhii Nuzhnenko via Reuters)

Past conflicts reveal scant hope for a nation that grants the aggressor a sanctuary. In lost war after lost war, we have repeated that mistake.

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Past conflicts reveal scant hope for a nation that grants the aggressor a sanctuary. In lost war after lost war, we have repeated that mistake.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE {P} utin’s objective is to occupy a significant portion of Ukraine and retain undisputed control of the Black Sea. He believes U.S. and NATO aid to Ukraine will dwindle in a protracted war.

Ukraine’s end state is to push Russia out of all its territory. Ukraine has proven it has determination and ferocity. The U.S. and NATO, however, refuse to transfer sufficient arms for Ukraine to accomplish that objective.

Unlike Putin and Ukraine, the Biden administration evades stating its desired end. It does not endorse driving Russia out of Ukraine entirely. What it does seek is unknown. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, has suggested that Ukraine cut a deal now. Ukraine understandably rebuffed that notion. So, the second year of the war begins with the administration hoping for some undefined middle ground short of a Ukrainian victory.

One thing is sure: The administration has enshrined Russia as a sanctuary. It insists Ukraine not strike Russian territory. The reason is fear that Putin might respond by detonating a nuclear bomb inside Ukraine. For some irrational reason, the U.S. might retaliate with a nuclear strike. Therefore, Ukraine must be constrained from fighting too effectively because we fear our own suicidal response if Putin acts like a madman. This emotional illogic has dominated the administration’s decision-making from the start of the war. Yet the likely and rational response would be to sever Russia from all global financial, travel, and trade systems. Putin would be a man marked for disposal.

General Milley likes to show a note card from a White House meeting in October 2021, five months before the war began. The card reads: “Contain war inside the geographical boundaries of Ukraine.” That was senseless. Of course, the war could not be contained inside Ukraine because Russia was attacking from inside Russia. The phrase “contain war” is the administration’s code word for treating Russia as a sanctuary.

PHOTOS: Russia-Ukraine War

It was military malpractice for our country’s top general to ignore history. Past conflicts reveal scant hope for a nation that grants the aggressor a sanctuary. In lost war after lost war, we have repeated that mistake. In June 1951, Lieutenant General James Van Fleet, our commander in Korea, urged enveloping the exhausted Chinese/North Korean forces and annihilating them. Instead, Washington treated North Korea as a sanctuary off-limits to our ground forces. The war continued for two more years, at a high cost in casualties and public support.

Similarly, from 1965 through 1968, President Johnson treated North Vietnam essentially as a sanctuary. Yet Russia was providing North Vietnam with thousands of tanks and artillery tubes to kill Americans in South Vietnam. From 2003 through 2008, Syria provided aid and sanctuary for the terrorists attacking Iraq. From 2001 to 2022, Pakistan provided assistance and shelter to the Taliban.

Now we have granted Russia an inviolate sanctuary. The administration vetoed the transfer from Poland of MiGs, ceding air control to Russia. Medium-range weapons such as artillery were withheld for months. Tanks and long-range tactical missiles remain today in the no-transfer list. Drip by drip, treating Russia as a sanctuary has become ingrained within Congress, the public, and the foreign-policy establishment. This has set a disturbing precedent. In the longer term, aggressor nations will conclude that if they acquire nuclear weapons, they ensure their territory is safe from retaliation while they attack other countries.

Sanctuary for Russia bodes ill for Ukraine. In 2023, there are two plausible war scenarios. In Scenario A, trench warfare, analogous to World War I, ensues with relatively little territory changing hands. As its munitions dwindle, Ukraine will ask the U.S. for longer-range weapons to hit munitions depots inside Russia. The request will be denied.

In Scenario B, Ukraine advances steadily. Retreating Russian forces must rely upon their depots just across the border. Ukraine must strike them to consolidate its gains. The most obvious example of Scenario B is the 11-mile Crimean Bridge connecting Russia with Ukraine. Ukraine cannot liberate Crimea without long-range weapons to destroy that bridge. To Putin, the bridge symbolizes his success in restoring the Russian empire. If it is destroyed, Putin will suffer a devastating blow to his authority. However, it is unlikely the Biden administration would provide Ukraine with the weapons to destroy that bridge.

In both scenarios, the U.S.-preferred end state — an undefined tie — will collide with the Ukrainian aim of pushing Russia out. Granting blanket sanctuary to an enemy is highly injudicious. Unfortunately, such sanctuary has become an unquestioned article of faith within the administration and Congress. As long as all military targets in Russia remain off-limits, the war cannot end well for Ukraine or the West.

Bing West, a former assistant secretary of defense for international security, is a military historian and the author of a dozen books about America’s recent wars.
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