As the Russian invasion of Ukraine stretches into its second week, and Moscow’s tactics shift to the direct targeting of urban centers and civilian populations, the United States and our European allies are facing tough questions about how much assistance to give the Ukrainians without becoming belligerents — or being considered belligerents by Russia — and thus widening the war.
As I write, Russian forces are laying siege to cities across Ukraine, contesting vital ports, and targeting civilians and critical infrastructure. The bombardment of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, has left at least dozens dead and hundreds more injured. Russian troops are now in control of Kherson, a major city in the south. The southern port city of Mariupol has been encircled, and the Russian attack there has cut power, water, and heat. Kyiv is under attack, and there are reports that Russia is preparing a major amphibious assault on Odessa.
Meanwhile, our leaders appear to be living in a fantasyland where their expressions of solidarity with Ukraine mean something tangible. Economic sanctions, the banning of Russian products from store shelves, the exclusion of Russian cats from cat shows, and the seizure of mega-yachts owned by Russian oligarchs, among other weak and inchoate responses from the West, are not going to stop Russian artillery and missiles from reducing Ukrainian cities to rubble in the coming days and weeks. The Ukrainians have fought bravely and inspired the world with their valor, but a new phase of the war is beginning, and Western leaders need to think seriously about what’s coming, and how this will end.
To stop the Russian invasion, the Ukrainians need more from the West than economic sanctions and bans on Russian products. They need heavy weapons, munitions, air support, and real-time intelligence from Western powers, and they need these things right now. The NATO allies understand this, on some level, and are pouring weapons into Ukraine — rocket launchers, Javelin antitank missiles, Stinger surface-to-air missiles, along with machine guns, sniper rifles, and ammunition.
But they are not sending military aircraft, and they are not sending troops. The United States will not even impose sanctions on Russian oil or entertain the idea of ramping up domestic oil production to offset Russian imports. A White House flack told reporters aboard Air Force One this week: “We don’t have a strategic interest in reducing the global supply of energy.” So that’s that.
The West, it seems, is trying to go right up to the line of belligerence without crossing it. Helping Ukraine, but not helping too much. For example, it appears that the U.S. is sharing some targeting intelligence with Ukraine but not real-time targeting of the kind that would enable Ukraine to take out individual Russian units.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., chair of the House Armed Services Committee, who said Thursday morning on MSNBC that “we are providing some intelligence” to Ukraine, also said that real-time targeting would cross a line “to marking us participating in the war.” Hours later, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki implied that we were not giving any targeting intelligence to Ukraine, which prompted pushback from Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who called Psaki’s comments “truthy” and that they do not “capture the full reality.”
Most likely, we are indeed providing targeting intelligence to Ukraine, but giving them the information only after a delay, so Russia cannot accuse us of assisting in the direct targeting of their forces.
That’s just one example of the needle Western powers are trying to thread. As the war goes on, and the fighting intensifies in and around Ukraine’s urban centers, the eye of that needle, so to speak, will get smaller and smaller. That means our leaders need to get serious about what they are prepared to do, and not do, in the defense of Ukraine. And they need to be clear with Ukraine and Russia about their intentions.
Right now, there is a galling lack of seriousness and clarity among them. On Thursday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., took to Twitter to call for the assassination of Russian President Vladimir Putin, as if that’s a realistic option to end the crisis and avert catastrophe in Ukraine.
His comment follows other reckless comments in recent days from U.S. lawmakers and former generals calling for NATO to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine. A no-fly zone would mean NATO warplanes shooting down Russian warplanes. It would mean open war with Russia. That’s precisely what some neocons in Washington want, for reasons of their own, but it’s not something the vast majority of Americans want.
Here is the hard truth: If the West is not going to send warplanes and troops, if we are not going to stop Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by force of arms, and by our inaction allow the bombardment of Ukrainian cities to proceed, then we need to be honest with the Ukrainians about that. We owe it to them to give them a realistic picture of what they can expect from us, and what they cannot expect. Indeed, we owe them a great deal more, but we at least owe them that.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is understandably trying to get NATO involved in the war. He is doing what any leader should do in his position, and he will likely go down in history for his courage and bravery in the face of the enemy. But if there is an off-ramp that might prevent what now appears to be the inevitable reduction of Ukraine to rubble, then Western leaders should not block it with bellicose talk and weak half-measures. We have had quite enough of both. Indeed, there were opportunities for the West to prevent this war, to persuade Moscow and Kyiv to negotiate a settlement, going back years. But in our fecklessness, we chose not to and instead kept talking tough and hoping for the best.
Now that Russia has entered this new phase of the war, the worst thing we could do for the Ukrainians would be to give them false hope as Russian forces close in, and then do nothing while their cities burn. If we will not do what’s necessary to stop Russia by force, then we should do what we can, right now, to broker a negotiated peace.