Since Russia’s second invasion of Ukraine last February, NATO members have spent considerable time patting themselves on the back, extolling their successes. Unfortunately, the West’s overall balance sheet is not nearly so rosy. One year in, consider the debits, not just the credits.
Most tellingly, the US and its Nato allies failed to deter Russia’s offensive in the first place. On several occasions, President Biden said he didn’t really believe deterrence was possible, merely that Russia could be punished for aggression after the fact. For example, a month after the invasion, Biden said: “Let’s get something straight. You remember, if you’ve covered me from the beginning, I did not say that in fact the sanctions would deter him. Sanctions never deter.”
Biden’s careless remarks may have encouraged Russia. At a January 2022 press conference, his first in 10 months, when asked about a possible Russian onslaught, he answered: “It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and then we end up having a fight about what to do and not do, et cetera. But if they actually do what they’re capable of doing ... it is going to be a disaster for Russia if they further degrade and, invade Ukraine.”
But the failure to deter the Kremlin was a consequence of much more than Biden’s sloppy geostrategic thinking and loose lips. Nato’s utterly insouciant response to Russia’s first invasion in 2014 laid the foundation for the seemingly inevitable sequel.
The West stood idly by when Russian forces intervened in Donbas and seized Crimea; imposed only perfunctory sanctions thereafter; negotiated the embarrassing, Moscow-leaning Minsk Agreements; and for years did precious little to provide anything close to satisfactory levels of military assistance and training to Ukrainian forces. Biden’s catastrophic 2021 decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and his unimpressive meeting with Putin in Vienna in June of that year were also significant factors.
Was the West really helpless? Quite the opposite. Even as the risks of Russian invasion grew in late 2021, the US and its allies could have significantly expanded their weapons deliveries (and the accompanying flow of Nato forces into Ukraine to provide training) to show Western resolve. We could have imposed heavy economic sanctions on Russia both for its 2014 aggression (better late than never) and its continuing, menacing build-up along Ukraine’s border. This would have made clear that Nato was reversing its feckless handling of the first invasion and would not repeat it. Whether so late an effort to create deterrence could have succeeded is speculative, but at least Ukraine would have had larger stockpiles and been better prepared for Moscow’s aggression last February.
Biden’s reluctance to do little more than grouse about Moscow’s invasion preparations stemmed largely from intelligence failures paralysing Nato capitals. In closed briefings to Congress shortly after Russia struck, American intelligence experts predicted Kyiv would fall within days, and the country within weeks. If there was dissent among US agencies, that disagreement did not make its way into the press, which means there probably was none.
Instead of developing a strategy for victory – repelling and defeating the Russians – Nato settled on a strategy for aiding post-defeat guerrilla warfare, and spiriting Volodymyr Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials out of the country. Zelensky, heroically, was having none of it, replying to the offer of safe transit to Poland: “I don’t need a ride. I need ammunition.”
When, contrary to expectations, the Russian forces underperformed stunningly, while Ukraine stood its ground, Nato had no plan B. It was not ready for success. Make no mistake, the intelligence failures regarding both Russian and Ukrainian combat-arms need to be corrected urgently, lest we are caught by surprise by China and others, perhaps because we have underestimated our enemy’s capabilities rather than overestimated them.
Almost one year later, Nato still has no strategy for victory. Saying that the war’s objectives and operational direction must be left to the Ukrainians is obviously insufficient. At least some Europeans, namely France and Germany, hoped early on that laying off responsibility on Ukraine might help force early Kyiv-Moscow negotiations to end the conflict. Today, this approach is simply a way for Western governments to avoid facing reality: we are in a world war in Ukraine, not directly with Nato forces, but with almost everything else on the line.
Russia is backed by its own entente with China and arms suppliers such as North Korea and Iran. The world is filled with “neutrals”. Nato members have long asserted, and still do, that Ukraine must be restored to full sovereignty and territorial integrity, meaning the boundaries that newly independent Ukraine assumed at midnight on December 21 1991.
Nonetheless, the West has been unable or unwilling to draw appropriate conclusions from its failures. We need a strategy that addresses Nato interests. Instead, for a year, we have had one dispute after another about what weapons systems to supply: Polish MiGs, Himars, longer-range artillery, tanks, F-16s. This is the wrong way to win a war, a war whose objectives Nato leaders fear to state. A list of weapons systems certainly is not a strategy, which emerges first by deciding on goals, then determining and marshalling the resources necessary to achieve them. If we fail to craft an articulable strategy, those who worry about Nato publics growing tired of yet another “endless war” will indeed have much to be concerned about.
Both the Trump and Biden administrations failed to deter Russia. Instead, Putin is deterring us from aiding Kyiv more effectively for fear that he will expand the war, trepidation reiterated just days ago regarding Crimea. We should ask ourselves: with what army? Putin’s nuclear threats have been hollow; he should learn that their use amounts to signing his death warrant. The West needs to call Putin’s bluff, decide what it wants, and then pursue it. Abraham Lincoln once complained that his generals had “a case of the slows”. He would recognise Nato’s problem today. We must break our conceptual chains, or next February will bring more retrospectives about the Ukraine war’s second year and what the third will bring.