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Putin Plays the Escalation Game

Column: How the West can gain the upper hand

Russian president Vladimir Putin / Getty Images
• September 9, 2022 5:00 am

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The war in Ukraine has taken another turn. This week, Ukraine launched its long-awaited counteroffensive against Russian positions in the south. It also reclaimed territory in the northeast. The United States announced an additional $2.8 billion in aid to Ukraine and its neighbors, including $675 million in munitions, vehicles, and field equipment. The finance ministers of the G7 agreed to a price cap on Russian oil (with details to follow). U.N. ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield condemned Russia’s barbaric "filtration operations" whereby Ukrainian civilians are searched, interrogated, and marked for detention or population transfer.

Vladimir Putin is not pleased. The Russian autocrat threatened to escalate the conflict. On September 2, Gazprom shut down the Nord Stream One gas pipeline to Europe. On September 7, Putin warned that he might ban oil and gas exports to Europe altogether. Then he said he might cancel the deal that allows Ukrainian wheat exports to transit the Black Sea. His indiscriminate shelling of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant turns nearby residents into hostages. "We haven’t lost anything, and we won’t lose anything," Putin declared.

Fake news. Russia has lost a great deal since February 24, when Putin launched his unprovoked war on a neighboring democracy. And the toll is sure to climb. Putin failed to achieve his initial war aim of regime change in Ukraine. Nor did he break the West. He unified it. Germany is spending more on defense. Sweden and Finland joined NATO.

U.S.-led export controls have forced Russia to buy weaponry from ramshackle rogue states Iran and North Korea. Russia occupies some 20 percent of Ukraine. For how long and to what purpose? The flagship of the Russian Black Sea fleet is no more. The life expectancy of Russian generals has plunged. Casualties up and down the chain of command are why Putin called to expand the military. Yet he won’t impose a general mobilization of either the Russian economy or the Russian people. Why? Because he might not survive the reaction.

Putin is left with threats. He brandishes the oil weapon. He raises the prospect of famine. He drops hints of nuclear war. His goal is to intimidate the democracies into paralysis. He wants to paint a scary portrait of the future so that Western governments abandon Ukraine. The truth is that escalation has risks for both sides. Putin is not the only leader with cards to play. Nor is the United States powerless. President Biden could raise the stakes for Putin in ways that will help bring the war to an end. The moment requires him to act.

America must give Ukraine the means to build on its recent success. The Ukrainians slowed the Russian advance to a crawl thanks to the help of U.S.-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS). Sixteen of these systems have been enough to change the trajectory of the war. Imagine what the Ukrainians could do with more of them. According to the Department of Defense, the next shipment of arms to Ukraine will include HIMARS ammunition. It won’t include HIMARS platforms.

This is a mistake. In July, former Pentagon official Michael G. Vickers told the New York Times that Ukraine could win the artillery battle against Russia with 60 to 100 HIMARS. It’s not that these systems do not exist. They do. It's just that America has not moved speedily enough to send them to Ukraine.

Why? The typical answer is that it takes time to deploy HIMARS and to train Ukrainians to operate them. But bureaucratic delays are surmountable. And the Ukrainians seem to have figured out how to work the HIMARS they have just fine. Another reason for America’s stinginess is that Pentagon officials worry that sending too many HIMARS to Ukraine depletes U.S. capabilities. As the Wall Street Journal reported this week, America’s aid to Ukraine reduces our own weapons stocks. The fear is America will be left unprepared for contingencies.

The good news is that there is a solution. "There are some problems you can buy your way out of," my American Enterprise Institute colleague Mackenzie Eaglen told the Journal. "This is one of them." Procurement reform combined with a massive increase in the Pentagon budget, aimed at renewing America’s defense industrial base, would allow us to provide more HIMARS to the Ukrainians while readying ourselves for unexpected events. Those unexpected events, by the way, are more likely to occur if America’s enemies perceive our will flagging, Putin gaining, and Ukraine losing ground.

The simple announcement that America plans to send Ukraine as many HIMARS as possible would have an effect. Nor are the HIMARS the only weapons that America can offer Ukraine. There is no better opportunity than now to revisit the error America made in March when it scuttled the proposed transfer of MiGs to Ukraine. The Ukrainians also need tanks. They need the long-range Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) to put any Russian asset on Ukrainian territory within reach of Ukrainian arms. And America could assist in the construction of a multi-layered air defense that would protect Ukrainians from Russian air and missile strikes.

Senator Rob Portman recently returned from a trip to Kiev. "Having more air defense systems at every range—short, medium, and long-range, would enable people to come back," he said in a September 7 speech on the Senate floor. "This is crucial because one of the issues now is that Ukraine’s economy has been reduced by about 40 percent because of the terrible war that’s being raged." Air defenses protect populations. They would encourage Ukrainian refugees to return to their homeland.

"The Kremlin is counting on Western weakness and believes European leaders will ultimately cave in when confronted by a combination of rising economic costs and escalating terror tactics," wrote Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s minister of defense, last month. Let's give Putin reason to believe that his threats will backfire. Make it clear to him that a total ban on oil and gas exports to Europe would hurt Russia’s economy at least as much as it would hurt the West—and that the West is willing to drop its self-defeating green energy obsession in order to cope with the oil shock.

Let Putin know that if he jeopardizes the safe passage of grain exports, President Biden will support labeling Russia a state sponsor of terrorism. The other day the White House repeated its concerns that naming Russia a state sponsor of terror would jeopardize food exports. If Putin backs out of the deal, then there will be nothing left to jeopardize. The blanket sanctions that accompany the terrorism classification would make life hard for Putin, his circle, and their war machine. Deservedly so.

Since 2008, when he invaded the republic of Georgia, Putin has been playing the escalation game by himself. America’s response to his aggression in Georgia, in Ukraine in 2014, and in Syria in 2015 was slow and fitful and half-hearted. In the runup to this year’s invasion, America miscalculated Ukrainian resilience. The Biden team didn’t send Javelin missiles to Ukraine until one month before Putin attacked. Over the past half year, the Biden team has sent weapons to the Ukrainians in dribs and drabs, always with one hand tied behind its back and always eager to tell the world what it won’t do.

The Ukrainian counteroffensive offers Biden a chance to unleash the arsenal of democracy for real. Teach Putin that he no longer sets the parameters of this conflict. Do what it takes to give freedom the upper hand.

Published under: Feature, Russia, Ukraine, Vladimir Putin