Updated: Mar 23
As the war in Ukraine has reached its first anniversary, NATO’s strategy in the conflict has led to a stalemate on the ground, which appears to have no foreseeable end. Over the past twelve months, Ukrainian forces have performed valiantly against far superior numbers of Russian troops and equipment to hold, push back, and regain territory after the initial invasion. However, we have reached a point where further significant advances by the Ukrainian army will require more sophisticated long-range weaponry, which its allies in NATO continue to hesitate to supply. With Russia in the throes of its spring offensive, the risk of serious Russian gains grows daily, threatening a reversal of Ukraine’s, and subsequently NATO’s, futures in the war. The time has come for NATO to end this conflict and restore peace and stability in Europe.
Since the beginning of the invasion, the US and its NATO allies have hesitated to provide Ukraine with the weapons necessary to repel and defeat Russia. American and European leaders continue to express the fear of a direct confrontation with Russia, which, it is argued, would lead to another world war. Since 2008, this reticence to confront Russia has played into Putin’s hands and has only emboldened him. The Kremlin leader has masterfully used the threat of nuclear weapons to keep the West at bay. The Kremlin’s current official line and Russian propaganda already characterize the war as an existential struggle for Russia against the West (i.e., the US and NATO). Despite small pockets of domestic opposition, there is little hope of convincing most Russians otherwise. More direct NATO involvement may help Putin in the short term with military recruitment, but longer term, the risks to the West would be negligible. There are greater advantages to shortening the war, which could accelerate the end of Putin’s regime, which is taking advantage of the hostilities to propel Russia back on top of the global stage. Historically, Russia has constantly desired to be a great power. Although not proceeding as expected, the Ukraine war has allowed Russia the illusion of being a superpower on par with the US, harking back to the USSR and Cold War period. The West’s/NATO’s actions are perpetuating this myth. Russia’s military defeat would burst this bubble and prevent Russia from future threats. Russian history has shown that military defeats have had significant negative consequences for Russian leaders. Misadventures in the Crimean War, Russo-Japanese War, First World War, and Afghanistan dramatically changed the fate of St. Petersburg and Moscow regimes.
The US and NATO’s hesitation is giving Russia time to adjust its domestic production of war materiel and find other sources of supply to allow it to prolong its military operations. Economic sanctions imposed on Russia have not been comprehensive and are slow to take effect. Meanwhile, the Russian government is learning to do without western production inputs and establishing alternative supply chains with Iran, North Korea, and China. So far, China has shied away from supplying lethal assistance as part of its unlimited partnership with Russia, but that soon may change. Greater Chinese support would allow Russia to plug its current logistics problems, thus making victory for the West/Ukraine more tenuous.
Judging by history, Putin is correct that time is on his side. One of the key disadvantages of democracies is brief patience with war. The US and European nations have shown stiff resistance to Putin’s invasion, but cracks are already appearing in Europe and the US. NATO members such as Hungary, more politically aligned to and energy-dependent on Putin’s country, have yet to fully embrace the strong line against Russia. In the US Congress, the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives is critical of blank-check support for Ukraine and even has an influential isolationist/pro-Putin faction. The longer the war drags on, and the more money and equipment are spent, the wider these fissures are likely to become. Another disadvantage of democratic systems has been a reluctance to proactively engage against threats, preferring to wait until armed conflict is unavoidable or thrust upon them. The resulting conflict becomes much more costly regarding lives, treasure, and damage.
Germany, arguably the principal benefactor of the post-WWII security system, has expressed consistent reticence for progressive support for Ukraine. The nation’s Nazi past and long-established commercial relations with Russia have influenced its decisions. Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government did agree to allow its Leopard II battle tanks to be made available to Ukraine, but only after protracted discussions and immense pressure. The Berlin government will agree to Ukraine’s request for fighter jets. Providing more lethal military aid could be a way for Germany to atone for its authoritarian past, showing that the nation is ready to fight against the current fascist regime in Europe actively. Another factor hindering more direct German involvement is the unready state of its armed forces. Recent evaluations of the Bundeswehr have identified major deficiencies in training and equipment, with one report characterizing the Bundeswehr as undeployable. Active involvement in Ukraine could bring to light these shortcomings and embarrass the German government.
France also has appeared slow to meet Ukraine’s combat needs. French President Emmanuel Macron has preferred to focus on diplomacy with Vladimir Putin. Since 2014, Macron, in partnership with Angela Merkel and now Olaf Schultz, has been a key backer of diplomatic efforts to settle the Ukraine crisis. Macron’s continued communication with the Kremlin has annoyed and angered Kyiv. One can remember Macron, before Russia’s invasion, shuttling back and forth to Moscow, playing to Putin’s ego and seeming to make the Kremlin leader take the French president less seriously. Part of France’s hesitation for direct involvement may be the country’s poor military performance in western Africa. Over the past decade, French troops have deployed to several countries in the Sahel to help battle militant groups. The overall results for France have not been promising, with several African nations requesting French withdrawal and even replacement by Russia’s Wagner Group. Macron has a longstanding goal for France to replace Germany as the key player in Europe. His reliance on diplomacy rather than military prowess has so far been insufficient. A more significant French military role in Ukraine could be used to propel France’s standing among EU nations.
The United States, Ukraine’s biggest supplier of armaments, has also been slow to provide advanced weaponry to Kyiv. The imposition of a no-fly zone over Ukraine may have prevented Moscow from invading in the first place. The continued hesitancy to provide Ukrainian forces with major weapon systems prolongs the conflict. The Biden administration’s gradual approach likely reflects America’s fatigue with multiple military deployments since 2001. The Republican party, historically hawkish on Russia, is still grabbling with the effects of Trumpism, which professes an almost apologetic, if not supportive, stance towards Russia.
President Biden and NATO officials describe the war as a contest between liberty and democracy versus authoritarianism. They add that Russia’s invasion also violates the basic tenets of the UN charter and threatens the entire international order. This would seem ample justification for the US and its NATO allies to intervene directly to push Russia back to its 1991 border with Ukraine. NATO found the atrocities occurring in Kosovo sufficient to use military force against Serbia in the mid-1990s. Putin’s war constitutes a much graver threat to European stability and the broader global order. So, what is different this time? Putin’s talk of deploying nuclear weapons. The Kremlin leader consistently broaches this subject to play into western fears of a nuclear war. Most experts agree, however, that the actual risk of a Russian nuclear attack in Ukraine is minimal. Putin understands that crossing the nuclear threshold risks ending any remaining international and domestic support. The US and NATO countries should be more willing to call Putin’s bluff and make clear that using a tactical nuclear weapon would lead to a comprehensive military response against Russian territory.
Direct involvement could include several elements. If the US and NATO allies are wary of sending ground forces into Ukraine, air defense support and a no-fly zone should be imposed over Ukraine. Such support would level the playing field for Ukrainian ground forces and civilian infrastructure against Russian missile and air attacks. A step further could be direct air support for Ukrainian ground forces from NATO fighter jets and other aircraft such as A10 Warthogs. This would likely require the elimination of Russian air defenses in occupied territory and Russia itself. The appearance of NATO aircraft in the skies over Ukraine would be an imposing sign to Russian forces and could further degrade their morale and effectiveness. NATO air support of a Ukrainian offensive might be enough to drive Russian forces out of the occupied regions. If this proves insufficient, or Russia responds by further escalation (conventional or nuclear), NATO ground and naval assets could be brought into action. Russian forces will be removed from Ukraine’s territory, and the goal of bringing the conflict to a rapid conclusion will be achieved. The result will be less loss of life and expenses. A quick end to the conflict will reduce the risk of a truly global conflict. The international order will be restored, sending a strong signal to other autocratic regimes that military adventurism will be swiftly countered.
Kenneth Maher earned an M.A. in Russian Area Studies and served as a U.S. Army military intelligence officer. He is also the author of "Wind of Change: An American Journey in Post-Soviet Russia." To learn more, follow Kenneth's blog at www.kennethmaherauthorbooks.com.