Biden’s Self-Defeating Ukraine Strategy

Column: Restricting weapons to Ukraine gives Russia and China the advantage

President Joe Biden in interview with ABC News's David Muir
March 3, 2023

"No, he doesn’t need F-16s now," President Joe Biden told David Muir of ABC News last week. Biden was talking about Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s latest request for advanced U.S. weaponry as his countrymen hold the line against Russia’s invasion. It was the latest tone-deaf comment from a commander in chief whose current strategy risks disaster.

One year into the war, Russia has yet to establish air supremacy over Ukraine. This failure speaks to the dilapidated state of the Russian military. It also gives Ukraine an opportunity to reclaim the skies and provide her ground forces with air cover. All Ukraine needs are the tools—tools that Biden and America’s NATO allies have been providing slowly, in dribs and drabs, in fear of provoking the Russian bear.

Zelensky is more aware of Ukraine’s defense needs than Biden, who isn’t sure if he’s called the mayor of East Palestine, Ohio, in the past month. And Zelensky has a keener appreciation of the complicated social, political, economic, strategic, and tactical conditions on the eastern front, where Russia is making incremental gains, at incredible cost in manpower and materiel, in a savage war of attrition. A true statesman would recognize that Zelensky is the better judge of Ukraine’s requirements and move heaven and earth to satisfy them so that the war ends, and deterrence is restored. Biden is not that man.

Yes, the president has said, correctly, that America ought to and will help Ukraine for "as long as it takes." What he’s neglected to mention is how long that will be. Nor has he acted to move forward the day when Russian forces leave Ukraine and Ukraine is integrated into the West’s institutional architecture. These are questions Biden doesn’t take up, decisions he’d rather not make.

Biden’s primary interest is U.S. domestic politics. And though he has been right to support Ukraine, he has also put NATO unity ahead of Ukrainian success. He has played into Vladimir Putin’s nuclear gamesmanship by preemptively ruling out measures that the Russian despot might consider escalatory. Biden’s self-deterrence has contributed to the situation Zelensky and the Ukrainian people face now: They are strong enough to control some 83 percent of their territory, but lack the capability to win back the rest. And the war goes on.

Biden gave Ukraine a fighting chance. But his policy is unsustainable. By practicing self-deterrence, and by resisting calls to dramatically expand defense production and ramp up weapons transfers, Biden has reproduced the conditions of past "forever wars" that America and her allies have stalemated or lost.

Biden permits the invaders to operate from a sanctuary, just as past presidents allowed in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, by denying Ukraine the means to strike inside Russian territory. His provision to Ukraine of enough resources to survive, but not enough to thrive, erodes U.S. domestic support for intervention by prolonging the conflict. A similar dynamic took hold during the Iraq war, when failure to devote sufficient manpower at the outset of the campaign and for several years thereafter had calamitous effects.

The price of Biden’s ambivalence is high. Putin is unmoved. An increasingly provocative China may supply Russia with lethal aid. U.S. weapon stocks are depleted and there is no plan to rush production. Ukraine remains a charnel house while other areas—the Persian Gulf, the Korean peninsula, the Taiwan Strait—may erupt at any time.

The elite consensus in favor of continued support for Ukraine holds. But popular approval is falling. And public opinion is what matters. Where voters go, elites will follow. Especially Republican elites involved in the 2024 presidential campaign, and in the effort to redefine the GOP as a nationalist-populist entity that hides behind Fortress America. If Biden assumes his current approach to Ukraine is good politics, if he believes that he is upholding American values without courting a backlash, then he is mistaken. The trendline is not headed in a favorable direction. The "humble" foreign-policy candidates tend to win. And the electorate may opt for the man or woman who offers peace.

But peace comes in two forms. You can have it, temporarily, through appeasement. Or you can achieve a lasting peace through victory. And for victory there is no substitute. What America needs, then, is a strategy for victory in Ukraine: a plan to scale up our manufacture and provision of weapons, to rebuild the arsenal of democracy, to impose steep costs on Russia and deter the rest of the axis—China, Iran, North Korea—from aggression.

Give Zelensky what he needs, and when he asks for it. Invoke the Defense Production Act. Propose a significant defense increase weighted toward procurement, research, and development, and the revitalization of the defense industrial base. Remind voters that defense jobs are manufacturing jobs—and that these jobs can’t be shipped overseas. Write multiyear procurement contracts that reassure contractors who worry America will abandon its global responsibilities. Treat the war in Ukraine not as a distraction but as the central front in the fight for freedom and prosperity. And remember that the party that delivers peace—a real peace—will be rewarded.