The End of the Beginning in Ukraine
November 17, 2022
Following the Second Battle of El Alamein in 1942, in which British forces led by Bernard Montgomery defeated Erwin Rommel’s German forces in Egypt, Winston Churchill remarked, “Now, this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” Churchill’s comments are relevant to Ukraine’s recent retaking of Kherson and the U.S. need to prepare for a protracted conflict. On November 14, violence spilled into Poland when Ukraine accidentally fired at least one SA-10 surface-to-air missile from an S-300 missile system, killing two individuals, after Russia shot approximately 100 missiles at Ukrainian civilian infrastructure.
Thus far, Ukrainian units have reconquered several thousand square miles of territory in Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk, and Kherson Oblasts. Over the course of their offensive, Ukrainian forces conducted impressive combined arms operations, military innovation, and denial and deception tactics. Russian forces have been far less impressive. Despite President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to put a positive spin on the war and to conduct a partial military mobilization and annexation of Ukrainian territory, Russia has sustained mounting losses on the battlefield. Russian ground units have suffered from low morale, poor execution of combined arms, subpar training, deficient logistics, corruption, and even drunkenness. To make matters worse for Moscow, there is mounting domestic opposition to President Putin’s partial mobilization and a sputtering economy following U.S. and other Western sanctions.
Yet there are growing calls by some foreign leaders for Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to end the war through peace negotiations. As President Zelensky told one visiting Westerner, he was under rising pressure from some Western officials to make concessions and to jumpstart peace talks. Some U.S. officials have also encouraged Zelensky and other Ukrainian leaders to publicly signal an openness to negotiate with Russia, though there have been disagreements among U.S. officials about whether now is the right time to push for serious negotiations. Some Western officials and pundits worry that continuing to provide weapons to Ukraine—including more sophisticated weapons, as Ukrainian officials have requested—might escalate the war to NATO territory, increasing the likelihood that President Putin uses nuclear weapons and risking a direct conflict between the United States and Russian forces. As one assessment concluded, the United States needs to conduct a policy of “calculated restraint ” toward Ukraine that limits arms sales and avoids escalation.
But these worries are misplaced, as are efforts to force Zelensky to negotiate a deal now. While dialogue between Kyiv and Moscow is important, pushing for a settlement now would reward President Putin for his military aggression, ensure either Russian de facto or de jure annexation of Ukrainian territory through naked power, and weaken deterrence against future aggressors—including China. If this is the end of the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Kyiv still faces a long and difficult road ahead. Now is the time for the United States to clearly outline a policy that supports Ukraine, provides sufficient arms to help Ukraine retake its own territory, offers economic support to counter Russian energy extortion and start to rebuild Ukraine, and guarantees better transparency and accountability of foreign aid.
Kyiv’s primary war aim is to restore the territorial integrity of Ukraine violated by Russian forces and their proxies beginning in 2014. The United States should make it clear that it supports this goal and will do all that is possible to help Ukraine succeed. Helping Ukraine achieve this objective is not only just because the country was invaded by Russian forces—it also has several other benefits for the United States.
To begin with, a clear U.S. goal of supporting Ukrainian sovereignty can help deter Moscow from again trying to change the borders of its neighbors by force or coercion. The weakening of Russia’s army by Ukrainian forces and Russia’s military industrial complex will decrease threats to NATO countries on Russia’s periphery—at least in the near future. This will allow the United States to concentrate scarce defense dollars on countering China in the Indo-Pacific. A weakening of Russia’s military may also be the shock that Russia’s body politic needs to move on from the Putin era. In addition, it could serve as a warning to other dictators who try to conquer countries through brute force. Ensuring that Russia does not achieve its objective also helps strengthen deterrence in Asia by demonstrating Western military, economic, and diplomatic resolve in the face of aggression.
While U.S., allied, and partner support to Ukraine’s defense has been critical in providing tools to repel Russia’s initial offensive, the United States has still not declared a clear political and military objective of the war. The closest to any official policy announcements by the administration have been the unscripted remarks by President Biden in Poland in March 2022 that President Putin “cannot remain in power,” as well as Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s comments in April that “we want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.”
It is important to remove the ambiguity of the United States’ desired end state in Ukraine. The foreign affairs machinery of the United States is at its best when it is focused on a clear threat and guided by a clear policy. It also provides a guidepost for other allies and partners to follow in their policy toward the war in Ukraine. Consequently, the United States should conduct a combination of military, diplomatic, economic, and governance steps to end the war in Ukraine on the best terms for the security of Ukraine and that deter future aggression.
The Right Weapons for the Right Fight
The United States has provided roughly $19 billion in security assistance to Ukraine between February and November 2022. Yet the total amount of aid is largely irrelevant if it’s not the right type of equipment. Ukraine’s needs have evolved from an early requirement for short-range defensive weapons such as Javelin anti-tank and Stinger antiair missiles, which were helpful to conduct defensive operations against advancing Russian forces. Along with training and intelligence, Ukraine now needs advanced systems for long-range reconnaissance, long-range fires, armored operations, and close air support to support offensive operations, such as MQ-1C drones, MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS), air defense systems, and fighter aircraft.
These types of munitions and weapons systems are essential to assisting Ukrainian forces conduct effective offensive operations against dug-in Russian forces. Above all, Ukraine needs rockets, missiles, and other munitions because the war has evolved into a grinding war of attrition in which both sides are waging a modern, protracted, and industrial war not seen since World War II. Such wars are insatiable consumers of munitions, and their heavy use takes a toll on weapons systems and platforms. On some days the Russian military has launched 50,000 artillery shells at Ukrainian military and civilian positions, and the Ukrainian military has frequently lobbed as little as a tenth as many against Russian positions.
ATACMS would be helpful. They are surface-to-air missiles that can be fired from a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), which Ukraine already possesses. But ATACMS can be fired three times the distance of standard rockets, allowing Ukrainian ground forces to move further away from Russia’s deadly long-range artillery. Tanks and infantry fighting vehicles are essential to providing fire support and carrying infantry into battle, since the war will likely remain a protracted ground war of attrition. MQ-1C drones provide helpful intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and strike capabilities to Ukrainian forces. The Ukrainian military has effectively integrated drones into combined arms warfare, where they have been particularly valuable in a contested environment to improve battlefield awareness without risking loss of life.
Finally, Ukraine’s Soviet-era air force needs better aircraft. Combat losses in the past five months have cost it nearly four dozen fixed-wing combat aircraft out of an original fleet of fewer than 150. With fewer aircraft available, each plane has to endure more sorties and wears down faster. Without replenishment from the West, Ukraine could lose the ability to defend its airspace and target Russian ground forces. The U.S. Air Force is divesting more than 200 A-10s, F-15s, and F-16s to make room for sixth-generation fighters, hypersonic weapons, and other systems. Ukraine could use some of these aircraft, particularly for close air support missions to aid Ukrainian ground forces.
Ukraine needs these munitions and systems at the appropriate scale. After all, Russia still has an advantage over Ukraine in the number of munitions and the quality of some weapons systems, including long-range artillery, advanced fixed-wing aircraft, and naval capabilities. U.S., allied, and partner military aid to date has been exceptional and unstinting, but as the war changes so must the aid provided. The value of U.S. military assistance should not be judged in terms of overall dollars but of effects on the battlefield.
Some policymakers have worried that advanced weapons could bring an even greater escalation of the war or even force Russia’s hand to use nuclear weapons. These fears have been a major factor in the United States’ unwillingness to provide advanced conventional weapons. However, there are several problems with these arguments.
First, they exaggerate Russian capabilities and ignore the fact that Russia has used virtually every possible conventional weapon in Ukraine and has extensively targeted Ukraine’s civilian population. The Russian war effort has long been at its maximum level of brutality . In addition, the Russian army has deployed almost all of its tactical units in the war and has no strategic reserve of competent maneuver units to extend the war into the Baltics or any other NATO country. Russian president Vladimir Putin’s announcement on September 21, 2022, to call up roughly 300,000 military reservists is unlikely to generate competent, combat-ready forces in Ukraine. Russian ammunition stocks, especially of precision-guided munitions, have been depleted to the point that it is now buying artillery shells from North Korea and drones from Iran. Finally, its logistical system has proven incapable of supporting one war; in no way can it support another war against NATO.
Second, these fears exaggerate Putin’s likelihood of using nuclear weapons by portraying him as an irrational actor. Putin has certainly made extraordinary miscalculations about how Ukrainians would respond to a Russian invasion, the effectiveness of his army, and Western resolve in implementing broad economic sanctions and providing military aid to Ukraine. But he has not been irrational. He has not expanded the war to NATO countries, as some feared. Nor has he conducted debilitating cyber operations against the United States and other Western countries, as others worried.
Russian nuclear threats against the West for its support of Ukraine may make Putin feel better, but they are not credible unless Russia’s military is willing to let Putin commit societal suicide. Any contemplated nuclear strike against a NATO country would not only contend with the nuclear might and second-strike capability of the United States, but also capabilities of the United Kingdom and France. In addition, it is unlikely that the use of nuclear weapons on the battlefield would change the course of the war. The Russian army has performed poorly on the battlefield, and its forces have struggled with low morale, poor execution of combined arms, and corruption. The Russian air force has failed to achieve air superiority and is running out of precision munitions. Nuclear weapons will not fix these problems.
Ukraine is not protected by NATO’s nuclear umbrella and there is a risk, however small, that Russia uses nuclear weapons. The goal of U.S. policy should be to make it clear to Putin and Russian elites that any use of nuclear weapons will lead to economic ruin for their nation. Many of the world’s liberal democracies have imposed economic sanctions on Russia. But China, India, and many nations of the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa have not. Most of these nations, especially those living in the shadow of other nuclear powers, will hopefully conclude that a nuclear state striking a nonnuclear state with atomic weapons is a precedent that undermines the national security of almost all of the world’s states.
Preempting Russian Extortion
The alliance that the United States has helped form to aid Ukraine is nearly as impressive as the one crafted by President George H.W. Bush in the face of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991. By providing military and economic aid to Ukraine, alliance support has been critical in turning the tide of the war behind Ukraine’s own blood, sweat, and tears.
However, Putin may believe that by weaponizing Russia’s energy supplies, he can break up the alliance this winter and end most sanctions against Russia. The next pillar in the United States’ policy towards Ukraine should be to continue providing necessary economic and energy aid to prevent a splitting of the alliance due to a lack of gas in Europe. The U.S. government and business community has already taken steps to move in this direction. The United States is now exporting over 60 percent of its liquefied national gas (LNG) to Europe, up from 20 percent a year ago. U.S. LNG imports currently provide more gas to Europe than pipeline gas from Russia in an effort some have labeled the Berlin “Gas Lift.” The United States should also provide Europe the technological and economic support to expand opportunities for fracking and generating electricity via nuclear power.
Putin’s last hope is that a lack of energy this winter will cause the alliance to fall apart and stop aiding Ukraine. Actions taken to get Europe through the winter and sustain allied and partner resolve should destroy any Russian hope of a deliverance from its problems via economic coercion. Destroying Putin’s last hope of success will hopefully speed Russian elites’ realization that it cannot win this war and must settle on terms just and favorable for Ukraine.
Transparency and Good Governance
Another ploy of Moscow is spreading propaganda that foreign aid has gone astray and that corrupt Ukrainian officials are siphoning off economic and military assistance. Ukraine has struggled with corruption, and President Zelensky ran for office criticizing Ukrainian politicians for “creating a country of opportunities—opportunities to steal, bribe and loot.” Since then, Zelensky has adopted some concrete anti-corruption measures, though large amounts of foreign aid pouring into Ukraine since the invasion has raised the prospect of further corruption.
The United States can help dispel Russian propaganda and concerns about corruption by working with the Zelensky government to strengthen anti-corruption efforts with a particular emphasis on accounting for aid provided since February 24, 2022. For example, NATO could create an “audit chamber” to work with the Ukrainian ministry of defense to track the use and disposition of all war material, including Stinger and other portable antiaircraft missiles. In cooperation with the European Union, a similar audit chamber should be created to track the status and use of all economic aid. The duties of the EU audit chamber could also be extended to monitor the likely foreign aid and contracting processes set up to rebuild Ukraine. These auditing and anti-corruption efforts can undercut Russian propaganda and reassure Western populations that their tax dollars have been spent properly and legitimately in supporting Ukraine against Russian aggression.
The Changing Tide
When Winston Churchill gave his El Alamein speech in November 1942, there were still nearly three years left of the war, Churchill correctly sensed that the tide of the war was turning. The war in Ukraine is, of course, not over. Far from it. But the Ukrainian defense of Kyiv in the early days and recent successful efforts to retake Izyum, Lyman, and other cities from Russian forces have been a blow to the Russian army.
In light of these developments, the United States and its Western partners need to be prepared to aid Ukraine over what could be a protracted conflict. Washington cannot be cowed by Putin’s bluster. The war is now one of grinding attrition, and the Ukrainian military needs weapon systems that will make a difference on the battlefield so it can continue to counterattack and reclaim its sovereign territory. Besides military assistance, the United States needs to provide sufficient economic and energy assistance to neutralize Putin’s attempt to weaponize gas and oil shipments to Europe in an attempt to break the alliance supporting Ukraine. Once Russia sees that it cannot use energy extortion to bludgeon Western countries into ending their support to Ukraine, there will be few cards left for the Kremlin to play. A Ukrainian military that retakes its sovereign territory, a Russian army facing defeat, and a West united behind Ukraine is the best way to end the war as soon as possible. Churchill ended his speech by reciting several lines of a poem by Lord Byron, which paid tribute to those that fell in battle. It has direct relevance to the war in Ukraine today:
Millions of tongues record thee, and anew
Their children’s lips shall echo them and say,
Here, where the sword united nations drew,
Our countrymen were warring on that day.
And this is much and all which will not pass away.
Seth G. Jones is senior vice president, Harold Brown Chair, and director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., as well as author, most recently, of Three Dangerous Men: Russia, China, Iran and the Rise of Irregular Warfare (W.W. Norton). Philip G. Wasielewski is a retired paramilitary operations officer in the Central Intelligence Agency and a Templeton Fellow for National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2022 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.