William A. Galston: Some Risks Are Worth Taking for Ukraine

From a Wall Street Journal column by William A. Galston headlined “Some Risks Are Worth Taking for Ukraine”:

As a weekly columnist rather than daily reporter, I have the luxury of deciding what I think is most important to write about. While the war in Ukraine may be falling off the front page of newspapers, it should remain at the forefront of our thinking. Vladimir Putin’s brutal and unprovoked assault could destroy a sovereign, independent and democratic country that poses no military threat to Russia, and it threatens to undermine the peace that Europe has enjoyed since the end of World War II.

The battle for Ukraine is a hinge of history. If the U.S. and its allies successfully help Kyiv turn back Russian aggression, the global forces supporting democracy and the rule of law will be strengthened—perhaps enough to arrest the past decade’s decline of democratic governance around the world. If America fails, autocrats around the world will conclude that democrats lack the will to defend their own cause. As China’s rulers eye Taiwan, they are also watching the Donbas.

Echoing a sentiment held throughout the West, President Biden has decided that the U.S. must resist Russian aggression without directly intervening on Ukraine’s side. We don’t know whether this self-imposed restriction will prevent Ukraine from succeeding. But one thing is clear: We must give the Ukrainians every reasonable chance to do so. This will require America and Europe to take prudent risks.

For example, reports from the front lines indicate that the longer-range rockets the U.S. has begun sending to Volodymyr Zelensky’s government are potential game-changers. The Ukrainians are using these weapons to destroy Russian arms depots and command centers far behind the front. In a war dominated by artillery, these systems could allow Ukraine to halt Russian advances and take the offensive. They’ve already had such an impact that Russia’s defense minister has designated them a priority target.

Sending many more of these weapons to Ukraine might temporarily exhaust our reserves and reduce the combat readiness of some active-duty units until new production can fill the gap. Although the Biden administration’s reluctance to do so is understandable, that is a worth risk taking because the stakes are so high in Ukraine.

Another example: Even as Iran prepares to send Russia hundreds of sophisticated drones to replace those lost in the war, Biden administration officials have hesitated to provide equally capable drones to Ukraine, in part because they fear Mr. Putin would regard this as escalatory. But evidence from the battlefield suggests that without drones to locate enemy artillery positions, the effectiveness of long-range rockets will diminish over time. Matching Russia’s move to replenish its stock of drones is a necessary countermeasure—and another example of prudent risk-taking.

Up to now, however, Washington and its allies have erred on the side of caution. According to Ulrich Speck, a German foreign-policy analyst quoted in the New York Times, the West is providing Ukraine “just enough” weapons “to survive,” but “not enough to regain territory.” As Mr. Speck puts it: “The idea seems to be that Russia should not win, but also not lose.”

It isn’t clear how much currency this idea enjoys in the Biden administration, but it seems to be popular among Western European governments. France’s President Emmanuel Macron has insisted repeatedly that Russia must be resisted but not “humiliated.”

But how can giving Ukraine the weapons to repel Russia really qualify as a humiliation? The Treaty of Versailles may well have imposed a humiliating peace on Germany, setting the stage for the next world war, but surely forcing Russian troops to retreat from Ukrainian territory to which they have no legitimate claim is in a different category.

As I’ve argued before, time isn’t necessarily on the side of Ukraine—or of the West. The war has accelerated a pre-existing surge in inflation, while depressing economic growth and raising the risk of recession. Thus far, Europe’s effort to reduce its dependence on Russian energy has imposed a higher price on its own economies than on Russia’s. Many European countries may lack adequate energy stockpiles to get through the winter. If so, popular discontent is bound to increase.

Support for the Ukraine war is taking a political toll in Europe. Disagreements about support for Ukraine have brought down Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s coalition in Italy, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s coalition has sent weapons to Ukraine at a distressingly slow pace, in part because of ambivalence within his own party. Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, an ardent Ukraine supporter, is stepping down, and there is no guarantee that his successor will match his enthusiasm.

Ukraine’s performance on the battlefield for the rest of the year will surely shape, and may well determine, its fate. Now is the time to give the Zelensky government all the help we can—weapons, training, money and unswerving moral support. Admiring the Ukrainians’ resourceful, courageous willingness to fight and die is not enough. We must give them every chance to turn the tide and drive out the invaders. This is not the time for half-measures—or for talk of negotiations.

William A. Galston writes the weekly Politics & Ideas column in the Wall Street Journal. He holds the Ezra K. Zilkha Chair in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program.


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