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The only choice was ever to help Ukraine fight
When I arrived in Kyiv in early December 2014, it was bitterly cold. At night, a crystalline fog would descend. In the morning, the trees were coated in ice, every twig and branch glowing golden as it fractured the light of the low winter sun that swept sullenly across the sky. The sun did little to melt the ice or warm the day; the temperatures stayed below freezing. Every breath out in open air became a puff of glittering snow; every breath in, a jolt. Everything looked like a scene from Dr. Zhivago, arctic and exotic and incredibly remote. Even a half-gallon pickle jar — lying on its side, lid askew, frozen to the wall of a pedestrian underpass by its own spilled pickle juice, empty vodka bottle as companion in a perfect still-life of yesterday’s sidewalk revelry — looked more romantic and magical under this patina of implacable winter.
I imagined the Ukrainian revolutionaries who had stayed on the Maidan all through the previous bone-chilling winter — a first kinetic demonstration of their will to be free of Moscow’s attempts to hold them captive to a lesser future, and a considerable aspect of why the Revolution of Dignity, as Ukrainians call it, had initially garnered international attention. It was ice and fire, defiance and poetry, rage and song. It looked, on the screen, like something close to open warfare, in the darkest hours. Tires burned, and Ukrainians looked beautiful and fearsome in the firelight. Everyday the square was full, everyday the energy grew. The momentum shifted because there was no way back anymore. Neither nature nor the terrors inflicted on them by then-President Yanukovych — Moscow’s warden in Kyiv, now kept as a pet in a dacha in Russia somewhere — could chill the fire of these Ukrainians.
Standing in the cold on the Maidan a year later, I had a whole new respect for what they had sacrificed to earn their chance at something more.
And I could only feel that we were failing them. That December, Kyiv was the capital of a nation at war. Revolution in Kyiv became a covert Russian war in Crimea and then an overt Russian war in the Donbas, in Eastern Ukraine. Uprising, invasion, annexation, brutal fighting, horrors like a passenger jet being shot from the sky by a Russian missile battery. A government fell, a crony president fled to Russia, and a new government and president — with the unenviable tasks of rebuilding a nation and an army in wartime — were elected. Now ice-frosted Kyiv was draped in defiant not-quite-sky-blue-and-sunflower-field-yellow patriotic banners, many covering the entire sides of buildings many stories high. Mobilization convoys where visible all through the city — collecting supplies and weapons, ammo and vehicles, men and women to take out to the eastern front, where a motley array of Ukrainian forces and private militias and volunteers sought to contain the second Russian invasion of Ukraine (Crimea being the first).
They had won their revolution. They got no respite to govern. They fought the war that came. They fought the war that Russia brought to them for making the choice to be free. There was no other choice then. There still is not.
But where were we? Then, as now, we are ensnared in the traps of process and shackles of doubts that the Kremlin conjures for us. All of it is designed to keep us from admitting clearly what Russia aims to achieve with its war in Ukraine: that it needed this war to keep its claws in Ukraine and keep us in doubt and at a distance. All this is designed to keep us from accepting that there was only ever one choice for us to make: to help the Ukrainians fight the kinetic war and exact a political toll on the Kremlin via the battlefield that is at least equal to the price exacted from Ukraine and the West in those same trenches and fields.
The only choice was ever to help the Ukrainians fight.
It was the Kremlin that set these terms, not Ukraine. And for almost 8 years, Ukrainians have carried the burden of meeting face to face the Kremlin’s challenge to the West.
This is why it was an outrage when the Obama administration withheld not only weapons deemed offensive but also most defensive equipment, including body armor and night vision goggles and some radar and communications gear, for fear that if the Ukrainians believed they could defend themselves, they might fight Russia too hard and try to retake their territory. This is why it was an outrage when Trump withheld military aid from Ukraine in the hopes the Ukrainian government would go after his political opponent as a “favor” first. It’s why it is an outrage now, where some military aid has been withheld in a misguided attempt to convince Russia not to invade (again) when in fact it sends the opposite signaling.
And the problem now is, Putin is very happy with who is looking at across the table. He knows the psychology of these US counterparts, and he hears the warmed-over rehash of the ideas that gave Russia an open battlefield against the West, even after they invaded a country explicitly to dictate the terms of NATO’s alliance decisions, as they did with Georgia in 2008.
This is why it is so critical for us to shake-up our mindset on the Kremlin, and our approach to deterrence, from negotiations to hard-power contingencies — before Russia again uses military might to lessen the impact of all the non-military means we try to bring to the equation.
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In the past weeks, there has been a lot of analysis of “what Putin might do” based on Russian rhetoric and where tanks are deployed and where reservists and regular forces are being moved. We micro-analyze satellite imagery and social media videos for truths we will not find there: the deciding go/no-go factor is about what we might do, not about Russian military mobilization.
Everyday there are stories that would break your heart from the terrible steampunk trench-but-high-tech warfare in eastern Ukraine. I started learning those stories on that first frosty night in Kyiv in 2014. The hard mobilization curve Ukraine was still climbing, and the realities of what this would all mean. In particular, that the time horizon was unlikely to be quick. Many Ukrainians had already answered the call to defend Ukraine on the battlefield. Many more would in the ensuing years. The slapdash efforts to assemble and crowdfund an army in those early months were pulled together by the Ukrainians until the militias and volunteers and enlistees formed one fighting force, one army for the new Ukraine. They trained, built, tested, adapted in the war. Now they have 250,000+ active duty forces, 200,000+ trained active reservists, 60,000 national guard troops, 40,000 military personnel in the border guard, a lot of interesting technical adaptations, and a new special operations force. In the 8 year war, there have always been men and women to fight it. Those that are there joined up during the war. They know why they are there.
This unrelenting Ukrainian will created the momentum that has earned them more Western support for their defense. In those early days, there was a steep slope to climb — partially technical, but mostly perceptional — to demonstrate that they deserved military support from all the Western partners who had applauded the revolution, but seemed nervous about securing the result. The shorthand description from Ukrainians was that the US considered blankets as military aid — not entirely true, but not so far off the mark. The nightvision goggles, body armor, and radar units initially deemed too controversial to provide to the Ukrainians — the explanation given was something to the effect of, “if the Ukrainians think they can defend themselves, they might might think they can fight the war against Russia too hard, and take risks that will ‘provoke’ the Russians into escalation” — instead of just maintaining a perceived unwinnable stalemate that seemed more acceptable to Western diplomats and politicians. Of course, this “stalemate” saw Russian-backed forces take more territory in Ukraine, and it has cost the lives of 14,000 Ukrainians. But the paralytic fear that Russia might do worse overshadowed decision-making in the Obama administration.
I had seen this pattern before — including the starring role of Senator John McCain, who in those days was driving the US Embassy in Kyiv absolutely bananas, pushing them to stop being a barrier for greater US defensive aid — in Georgia. After the Russian invasion in 2008, there was this same thinking that if the Georgians thought they could defend themselves, they might “attack” Russian occupation forces and try to retake their own territory. In those years, the Georgians — who had been deployed with US forces in Iraq when the war in Georgia started in 2008 — were deploying forces to the hottest areas of fighting in Afghanistan as part of the NATO ISAF mission. With no combat restrictions on their forces, they were contributing the highest number of forces per capita after the United States. But they couldn’t even buy spare parts for their American rifles because of all the unspoken embargoes that had been put in place. Parts and equipment would essentially be smuggled to them when they were deployed. US Marines and military trainers were based in Georgia to prepare their forces for deployment, but we wouldn’t allow them to train their forces for the territorial defense of Georgia for years after Russia invaded — again for fear that they would think they could stand up to the Russians. And really, imagine saying that to a country while 20 percent of its territory is occupied by a foreign power. We think it’s provocative if you train to defend yourselves. As if only the agency of Moscow is worthy of consideration.
Despite the fact that, six years on, it was now clear that this thinking only encouraged Moscow to believe they were on the right path and push harder, the same paralytic thinking about provocation was immediately applied to Ukraine. The fear that if the Ukrainians fought, it would be further provocation to Moscow. That somehow, they had provoked Moscow in the first place. That somehow, they had to hope that just standing in front of the wave with whatever weapons and equipment they had around would have to do, while Moscow was testing its new electronic warfare equipment and drones on them, and training its snipers by shooting their soldiers in the face while they were standing watch. That somehow, the war was only about Ukraine, and not the rest of us, too.
For the crucial early years of the war, political decisions were made by Washington to try to shape a limited Ukrainian approach to the conflict that could have been no match for the Russian attack force, even in purely defensive terms. Thankfully, the Ukrainians ignored a lot of it and fought the war that Russia had brought to them — probably at far higher cost and with far higher thresholds than if they had gotten sufficient support.
Over time, their bravery and doggedness and creativity won them the support they should have had from day one. Ukrainian forces, with Western support, have steadily honed themselves. They consistently surprise us, because we are not used to will being such a significant aspect of conflict. One of the things that is so incredibly frustrating about our stumbling messaging on Ukraine is that our training efforts in Ukraine have been enormously successful, using a light footprint and good local partners — just as we want to be able to do and replicate other places. We should be cheering this as a projection of our commitment and strength. But we don’t explain this at home or within the Alliance, leaving Russia to manipulate this false debate about whether or not US forces will deploy to defend the streets of Kyiv.
The same is true of the important relationships between a range of special operations forces from NATO nations and their Ukrainian counterparts. There’s a hugely significant partnership in this space — small in presence but high in value — in which all of us are learning from the Ukrainians as much as giving them any advice or assistance. Where else could we do this, with visibility on a temporal adversary and with relative faith in the local partner? This is a sign of Ukraine’s commitment to NATO as much as anything. But instead of using it as an organized initiative to show this commitment in both directions, it’s all low-key, and we lose all of the messaging value at home and abroad. The messy, irregular conflict in Ukraine is part of a broader political war waged by the Kremlin. This is the package we all need to be ready for. So talk about why we are there, and why it matters that we are there.
All this has had the effect of building a Ukrainian force to fight this war with whatever grit it requires. Everyone said they couldn’t do it. It’s been 8 years, and, as David Herszenhorn recently wrote: “The status quo has been faring better for Kyiv than Moscow. Slowly but surely the Ukrainian military has been growing stronger… Soldiers are under no illusion that Ukraine could win a war against Russia, but they are certain they will make Russia pay a high price in blood. Meanwhile, democratic reforms are advancing in Kyiv, even as Russia is stuck paying the bills in the occupied territories. It was not hard to see why Putin seems intent on shaking things up.” The momentum is in their favor. Their success is theirs. Their will comes from themselves. This is impossible to place a value on. Every bit of this deserves our whole-hearted support.
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Russia has taken a lot from Ukrainians — but it has given them the thing the Kremlin fears the most: clarity on who they are, and where they do not want to go back to.
This clarity is akin to what you see in the Baltic states, who pushed hard to get into NATO as fast as possible after the Soviet collapse, despite the advice of Western friends to take it slow. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania knew their only guarantee of freedom from Moscow was under Article 5. Still, the threat and reality of pressure from Russia is significant. When you see the inevitable annual RAND report that if Russia decides to invade the Baltic states, it could be in their capitals in mere days — it’s worth remembering that the actual defensive plan of the Alliance is that we would lose the territory, and have to fight to get it back. They train for resistance and guerrilla warfare. That’s the reality they face, everyday. The reality their soldiers, reservists, civil servants, and civil defense groups train for on a whole-of-society basis.
So naturally there is quiet outrage and frustration when we over here on the other side of the ocean tell everyone to chillax while we negotiate with Moscow on the future of the Alliance that protects them from Moscow — because they are training to mobilize their entire populace when the war comes, and we’re like, “I dunno, maybe Russia has a point,” or whatever the current version of the Russia’s “legitimate interests” is these days.
This is happening again during the current purely Russian escalation toward Ukraine.
The Biden administration has been clear that they want to “deescalate” tensions with Russia, and the situation resulting from the Russian military buildup along the Ukrainian border and in Ukrainian territory. At face value of that word, who doesn’t? But what is not clear is that they know how to achieve this. They have started, once again, by withholding some lethal assistance to Ukraine, taking US troops off the table, and calling for talks with Russia about the future of NATO that would have occurred without any of the frontline members (a story for another time, but the explosion inside the Alliance after this announcement, which the US seems not to have discussed in advance with either the Alliance members or the NATO Secretary General, has left a deep sense of unease about whether US policy and actions will line up with speeches about values and democracy; essentially, the idea of these talks had to be immediately withdrawn). A goodwill gesture toward de-escalation eroded our own certainty and cohesion: kind of a bad place to start.
And it’s important to understand the Russian doctrinal concept of “escalate to de-escalate,” which is discussed in great depth by Oleksandr Danulyuk — an organizer of the Maidan protests, and now directly engaged in defense planning in a variety of capacities — in this essay about strategic deterrence. He writes:
Since the problems that Russia creates for the West are much more significant than those that the West creates for Russia, we do not have to accuse Moscow of lack of logic and excessively risky behavior. The risks of negative undesirable consequences for Russia are extremely low and are well calculated by its leadership… Such a universal approach to creating threats to further eliminate them in exchange for concessions from the object of influence is called “escalation for de-escalation” and the resumption of its active use after the Cold War is personally associated with Vladimir Putin.
…To analyze the current behavior of the Russian Federation, it is important to understand that both the military doctrine of 2000 and subsequent doctrines, which also included elements of “escalation for de-escalation” should be considered in the context of strategic deterrence, rather than guidelines for military action. At the same time, it should be understood that Russia’s understanding of deterrence differs significantly from the Western one, and is aimed not at avoiding conflict as such, but at deterring the West and especially the U.S. from participating in it. In other words, the task of such deterrence is to preserve Russia’s ability to put pressure on third countries, including by using its own military forces against such countries, without a high risk of U.S. intervention on the part of victims of such pressure.
…Unfortunately, neither after 2008 nor after 2014, Russia was not punished enough to stop the practice of military pressure. As a result, the Kremlin’s arsenal includes not only military bluffing, but also the possibility of direct military aggression… At the same time, gaps in the technical support of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, especially in the areas of air and missile defense, and Russian dominance in the Black and Azov Seas, create certain opportunities for Russia to avoid a direct land collision with Ukraine in which Russia will not have sufficient advantage. Preserving these vulnerabilities in Ukraine’s defense is critical to Russia’s ability to maintain military pressure and blackmail, both against Ukraine and its Western counterparts. Unfortunately, Ukraine in its current economic state is unlikely to be able to solve the problems of technical equipment of its own air and naval forces in a short time. But this is quite possible with the support of Western partners, especially with the help of the United States. This is well understood in the Kremlin. And the current “escalation for de-escalation” on Ukraine’s borders is directed against such assistance.
…Even the smallest concessions that can be made to Putin in the current situation will only preserve opportunities for Russia to continue its aggressive wars and blackmail by their conduct to achieve the desired political results. The only adequate response to the Kremlin’s criminal behavior should be to use its own “escalation for de-escalation”, which should include increasing sanctions on Russia and its leadership, intensifying defense and security cooperation with NATO members and partners, and substantially increasing military and technical assistance to Ukraine.
Danylyuk argues clearly that the only real deterrence against this cycle of Russian escalation is changing the balance by arming Ukrainians with weapons and equipment that increase the margin of pain for Moscow should Moscow decide to test Ukraine further.
This is echoed by former Estonian intelligence director and current member of parliament Eerik Kross, who writes:
Moscow’s rhetoric shows that they are most afraid of NATO or American direct military assistance to Ukraine — granting real military capabilities to Ukraine. This is more or less the only thing that could stop Russia, and granting it should be decided rapidly so the Kremlin can be convinced of this reality.
The Biden team — many old faces of the Obama team — seems to reflexively reject this approach, believing removing sticks from the equation is enough of a carrot to Moscow to pull them back from the brink. Russia’s intensive — but not nearly so comprehensive — military buildup near Ukraine in April of this year ended without additional military incursion into Ukraine; the current administration seems to view this as some kind of diplomatic success, rather than an iterative Russian mobilization exercise to test our response and pre-deploy certain equipment. They seem sure the same approach of calls and withheld action will work again.
But Ukrainians view this as a path that enables the worst Russian behavior by failing to meet the threshold of deterrence. They have proven themselves to be a responsible partner, even during times of intense fighting. And they are wondering why we haven’t understood yet that the Kremlin’s ambitions reach far beyond destabilizing Kyiv.
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I asked Danylyuk what his take was on the buildup. The readout of the Biden call with Putin had just come out, with this strange reference to a NATO small-group that would engage Russia on its “concerns” about NATO. I was griping, as per usual, about this continued nonsense, and he interrupted me.
“Washington can negotiate whatever it wants. Ukrainians will not stop fighting.”
And as always, with no extra words from Danylyuk, there was the truth. The truth the West never wanted to embrace, the truth the US and others have avoided making eye contact with for all these almost 8 years. The only choice was ever to help Ukraine fight. There is no other choice, and no other way ahead, through, or out. It is only this: to help Ukraine fight. This is the only deterrent to Moscow’s b*llshit. The Kremlin created this reality — not Ukraine, and not us. Ukrainians will fight for their country and their future. We have no right to tell them not to. And the future of Ukraine is very much about us — as Putin and his goons have hammered out again and again in endless press statements in these past weeks, demanding NATO retreat to its 1997 borders and raving about the loss of territory when the captive republics broke free at the Soviet collapse.
Any other approach than helping Ukraine resist Russian invasion and aggression attempts to take away Kyiv’s agency and the hard-made choice of Ukrainians to suffer the price of wanting to be in the West, or at least free of Moscow’s yolk. Any time we don’t fully embrace that choice, we weaken ourselves by failing to believe in what we say we are. We give Moscow all the agency, and gut our own, and that of our allies and partners. We encourage the cycle of escalation
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Russia has no problem acting on perceptions of threats — whether they be reality based or not — with military power.
There’s this formula they use. Russia creates crisis. Russia offers to solve crisis in exchange for things. We all know this by now. Ok.
But that means when the Biden team approaches outreach to the Kremlin with if you do X we will do Y, and if you don’t do X you can have Z — they are still rewarding the Kremlin for the formula of aggression. The answer should be only if X then Y. No incentives. Only scalable pain. And deterring the calculus of how and when Russia decides to reapply the crisis cycle — and break beyond it to take a bigger risk when they feel the costs are acceptable — has to be a more prescient concern in our global strategy to deter and compete against Russia and its allies. Only in real terms, we have no global strategy on Russia. And the Kremlin knows that all too well. Half of what they do is to manipulate perception and narrative and decision-making, and we always seem particularly unaware of this possibility.
Putin, as a leader, is essentially a construct, which makes him very skillful as a fabulist. He has this way of peppering in new biographical detail about himself, for example, when it is useful to his narrative. Some of them — like the story of his father dragging his nearly-dead mother from a mass grave or under a pile of rubble, depending on the variations in the story he told to President Bush or Secretary of State Clinton — seems extravagantly spun for specific purpose. Others — like this thing where he admitted his grandfather had been Stalin’s personal cook and a “valued member of his staff” — seem more accidentally revealed and more truthful. Recently, he claimed to have moonlighted as a taxi driver in the ‘90s. As a point of storytelling, it seemed particularly apt. Taxi drivers in that part of the world are a key vector of conspiracy theory. And Putin is nothing if not a gleeful participant in mindf***ery against his opponents.
And now he looks across the table and sees his opponents in the US administration are confused by him, or at least uncertain, just as they were the last time. And of course it all shapes the information environment. Every time they build a crisis, they are also building the narrative they want in return. Because every time they threaten to invade Ukraine, it isn’t just the Tucker Carlsons of the world come out with their “Who cares about Ukraine anyway?” “realism,” but a wider range of voices, left and right, domestic and foreign, who keep moving the needle toward the idea that we should just let Moscow have stuff because then maybe we wouldn’t have to care about it anymore. This is presented a number of different ways, but this is what it amounts to.
It is all for purpose.
I understand the usually well-intentioned idea of offering goodwill to Moscow — but it is beyond clear now that it does nothing but raise the cost of our own security, and that of our alliance partners. It raises the cost on everyone still trying to break free from Moscow — which any nation has the absolute right to do. It also raises the cost of keeping cohesion in the Alliance. There was a rumor going around that a 10-year moratorium on the expansion of NATO to new member states was being considered; the Finns were joking that if they asked to join NATO now, the White House would say no.
The same week the White House hosted its vaunted Democracy Summit — a long-planned set-piece meant to make a big splash on policy and values — it basically said to Ukraine, “if the Russians come (again), good luck.” Talk about stepping on your own message. Are we defending democracy and values or not? Only when it isn’t hard?
Putin tells us stories, spinning fables, and we listen. Op-eds and Twitter threads explain why Putin has reasons — without owning the cost of bargaining away the future of 44 million Ukrainians.
You’ll see far less people tweeting and opining on what we owe to this region that we left captive to the Soviet Union after WWII — the horrific cost of the bargain with Stalin to defeat Hitler. The millions we left captive to famines and purges and deportations and mass death, gulags and the prisoner labor that helped transformed the Soviet Union after the war. What Putin thinks of as the glory days.
At the burial of General Aleksander Einseln — an Estonian American, he fled as a child when the Soviets occupied Estonia, made it to America, joined the army as soon as he could, served 37 years, fought in two wars, and retired as a lieutenant colonel before being recruited back to newly re-independent Estonia to rebuild their army — in Arlington Cemetery, a lovely old Estonian man told me stories of he and “Aleks” as boys. They met in Germany, in the camps for the displaced fleeing Soviet occupation, before they finally got permission to come to America. “We assumed we would go back,” he told me. “We never thought it would be 50 years.” The way he said it, it wasn’t a joke.
Our stories — the real ones, of us and our allies and the people who fight to have what we have, not these fables Putin spins at us — are intertwined.
We told the Estonians to wait on NATO, too. Be patient. In time. And thankfully they didn’t listen. Their history and will is an asset to the Alliance. Just as now Ukraine’s will and experience-by-fire can be as a partner.
These are men and women who won the right to be our brothers and sisters. All the ways the West is failing to see the importance of the war that Ukrainians are fighting, Russia exploits to further weaken Ukraine and us. Time to close the gap. Or else to prepare for the contingency that we were too slow or too late or too unwilling, and Moscow will have won a significant victory of momentum and perception about which we will need something to say to prevent the possible collapse of the security architecture we depend on.
The only choice was ever to help Ukraine fight, because this is about the future of the free world, and the will of free men to defend these values through a time of turbulence and uncertainty against rising authoritarian competitors and adversaries. Each delay only raises the price we will pay, in the end.