By Max Boot [July 27, 2022]
he war in Ukraine has now entered its third phase.
Phase one, beginning on Feb. 24, was Russia’s pell-mell attempt to take Kyiv. That resulted in failure thanks to terrible Russian logistics (remember the 40-mile convoy?) and a skillful Ukrainian defense making use of handheld weapons such as Stingers and Javelins supplied by the West.
Phase two began in mid-April, when Russian dictator Vladimir Putin concentrated his forces on Luhansk province in the eastern Donbas region. That phase, characterized by relentless Russian artillery bombardment, ended in early July with the retreat of Ukrainian forces from Luhansk.
In the third phase of the war, Ukrainian troops are holding a strong defensive position in neighboring Donetsk province (also part of Donbas) and effectively hitting back with High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems and other longer-range weapons supplied by the West. The HIMARS, in particular, have been a game changer by allowing the Ukrainians to destroy more than 100 high-value targets such as Russian ammunition depots and command posts.
A Ukrainian battalion commander told The Post that since the HIMARS strikes began, Russian shelling has been “10 times less.” Another Ukrainian officer told the Wall Street Journal: “It was hell over here. Now, it’s like paradise. Super quiet. Everything changed when we got the HIMARS.” President Volodymyr Zelensky says Ukrainian fatalities are down from between 100 and 200 a day to 30 a day.
If Ukraine is able to fight back so effectively with only 12 HIMARS (soon to be 16), imagine what it could do with dozens more and, better still, Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS), which use the same platform but have nearly quadruple the range. These rocket systems should be supplemented by Western tanks and fighter aircraft. If the West were to supply all these weapons, Ukraine could mount a counteroffensive to take back lost land in the south and east and help end the war.
The Biden administration is slowly supplying more HIMARS and, for the first time, is even discussing the provision of Western fighter aircraft (after nixing a Polish plan to send MiG-29s in March). But ATACMS appear to be off the table because, as national security adviser Jake Sullivan explained last week, the administration does not want to head “down the road towards a third world war.” Ukraine isn’t even allowed to use its HIMARS to end the shelling of its second-largest city, Kharkiv, because the Russian artillery batteries are located on Russian soil.
This strategic calculus makes no sense. Does Sullivan really believe that Putin will launch World War III if the United States supplies rockets with a range of about 180 miles but will hold off as long as we’re supplying only rockets with a range of about 50 miles? Or that the provision of HIMARS, NASAMS air-defense systems, 155mm howitzers, Phoenix Ghost drones, Javelins and Stingers isn’t too provocative — but fighter aircraft and tanks would be?
President Biden is right not to send U.S. forces into direct combat with the Russians, but everything else should be fair game, from ATACMS to F-16s to Abrams tanks. The Soviets didn’t hesitate to supply North Korea and North Vietnam with fighter aircraft to shoot down U.S. warplanes. (Soviet pilots even flew for North Korea.) Why shouldn’t we return the favor?
At the beginning of the war in Ukraine, some feared that Putin was acting so irrationally that he might resort to nuclear weapons. But if the past five months have taught us anything, it is that, while the Butcher of Bucha is evil, he is not suicidal or irrational.
Putin pulled back from Kyiv when it was revealed to be a losing cause and made sensible, if brutal, use of Russian artillery in Luhansk. Putin has basically ignored rumored Ukrainian strikes on military targets inside Russia. He hasn’t attacked Poland, which has become the main staging ground for weapons to Ukraine. He hasn’t lashed out since Finland and Sweden set about joining NATO, thereby putting more NATO troops on Russia’s border.
This is of a piece with Putin’s history. He is a classic bully who picks on the weak (Georgia, Ukraine, the Syrian rebels) while shying away from direct confrontations with the strong (the United States, NATO). Putin is rational enough to realize that if his military is having trouble handling Ukraine, it would have no chance in a war with the Atlantic alliance.
The United States matches Russia in nuclear forces and far exceeds it in conventional capabilities. Biden is in a far stronger position than Putin, but he is acting as if he were weaker. Stop letting Putin deter us from doing everything we can to aid Ukraine. Putin should be more afraid of us than we are of him.
The war has already proved costly to Russia: It has lost about 1,000 tanks, and roughly 60,000 soldiers have been killed or wounded. There won’t be much left of the Russian military if the Ukrainians are armed with lots more HIMARs and ATACMS, along with tanks and fighter aircraft. The fourth phase of the war could prove decisive — but only if the United States finally makes a commitment to help Ukraine win.
Max Boot is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.”