Once again, the Biden administration is mired in a protracted negotiation with itself over the weapons platforms it will or will not provide Ukraine.
The Biden White House is engaged in a standoff with the German government over whether to provide armor—American M1 Abrams tanks and German Leopard 2 tanks—to Ukraine. Both are reportedly open to the prospect, but only if both do so simultaneously. The impasse masks a fractious internal debate within both the German and American governments over the risks associated with providing Ukraine sophisticated weapons systems and their escalatory effect on Russia’s war of territorial conquest.
We’ve seen this movie before. The Biden administration agonized over whether to provide Ukraine with long-range artillery and rocket systems, but it overcame its reservations. The White House didn’t want to provide Ukraine with Patriot anti-missile batteries because an American presence in Ukraine would be required to operate them. Only when the administration discovered it could train Ukrainian soldiers to operate those systems on foreign soil did it relent. This superficially tense debate over whether to give Ukraine armor may follow a similar trajectory, especially given the recent influx of advanced weaponry into Ukraine.
Since the beginning of this year, NATO nations have augmented their material commitments to Ukraine’s defense. The U.K. announced its intention to provide Kyiv with Challenger 2 tanks. Poland will give Ukraine S-60 anti-aircraft systems. Latvia and Lithuania are sending M-17 helicopters and Russian-made Mi-8 rotary-wing aircraft. German Schützenpanzer Marder 1 infantry fighting vehicles and French AMX-10 RC armored reconnaissance vehicles will soon make their way to Ukraine’s battlefields. And the United States will soon provide Ukraine with Stryker armored vehicles, along with M2 Bradley armored personnel carriers.
Ostensibly, these weapons platforms will replace the Soviet-era vehicles that have been lost to 11 months of near-total warfare. But these platforms are all designed to prosecute a fast-moving conflict, which is no accident. As the fighting around the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut has settled into a grinding stalemate, Western defense officials have become increasingly concerned that this winter will produce a durable line of contact in which Russian forces become entrenched. As one unnamed U.S. defense official told the Washington Post, “the impetus on getting a lot more infantry fighting vehicles, tanks, whatever capability could enable the Ukrainians to break the World War I, trench-warfare dynamic going on right now and enable them to claw back.”
This shift in NATO’s posture toward arming Ukraine has been accompanied by a slow but measurable paradigmatic shift in Western capitals regarding what they believe are achievable objectives in this war. According to the New York Times, the Biden White House has started to “soften” its opposition to helping Ukraine recover some of the territories it lost to Russia after Moscow’s 2014 incursion into the country. Specifically, the Crimean Peninsula.
American officials are less concerned now that Russia would respond with unconventional weapons to an attack on what it claims to be its territory, which was the primary factor staying Western hands amid Kyiv’s requests for longer-range weapons to strike at Russian staging areas. After all, Ukraine is engaged in successful offenses in all four of the Ukrainian Oblasts Moscow illegally subsumed into the Russian Federation in September 2022. Moreover, a successful Ukrainian offensive in Crimea, U.S. officials believe, would strengthen Kyiv’s position in a negotiated settlement of the war in Ukraine.
Russia, too, is readying for a brutal spring. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has warned, and private Western think tanks agree, that Moscow is readying a second military draft even before the first mobilization drive is over. This will complement efforts that Russian officials acknowledge are ongoing. Among them, a series of “large-scale changes” to Russian force posture aimed at augmenting its capacity to not just wage war in Ukraine but to conduct a conventional ground war all along its borders.
Absent a reassessment of Russian battlefield tactics, throwing more personnel at Ukrainian lines without requisite air or armor support will not change the dynamics on the ground. Western critics of what they dubiously deride as unqualified support for Ukraine’s defense (a position that must ignore the West’s protracted internal debates over the capabilities it will and will not provide Ukraine) regularly indict NATO for failing to articulate or even envision its objectives in this conflict. We don’t know what the West thinks victory would look like, they contend. That is an increasingly tendentious argument.
To survey the shift in Western thinking about the war and Ukraine, we can surmise that the West’s conception of victory looks like a future in which Russia’s capacity to export force abroad is severely curtailed. A future in which Russian forces are depleted to such a degree that it will take years—even decades—to rebuild them, and its forward positioning in the Black Sea region will be hamstrung. It is also a victory codified in a negotiated settlement to the conflict, which is itself a face-saving position for Russia that allows it to withdraw from contested areas of Ukraine without engaging in reckless escalation. A durable peace on those parameters well positions the West to, at long last, strategically pivot toward the Pacific safe in the assumption that Moscow will not threaten the international order again for a decade or more.
The West’s conception of victory is far more realizable than Russia’s, insofar as Russia even has a conception of victory in Ukraine anymore. Western critics of Ukraine’s war fear above all that Moscow, in the event of a fast-moving spring offensive that dislodges Russian forces from their entrenched positions, will opt for nuclear brinkmanship. But nuclear deterrence is a two-way street. The dynamics that have kept everyone’s missiles peacefully interred in their silos for decades are as compelling as ever, and proxy warfare between the West and Moscow is not a uniquely destabilizing condition. Indeed, it was a defining feature of relations between the West and the Soviet Union for much of the Cold War, and it became the defining feature once again after Russia intervened in the Syrian civil war in 2015 on the side of forces against which Western powers were already fighting on the ground.
In the long-term, time may indeed be on Russia’s side. But the spring fighting season will determine whether this war drags on for years or whether Moscow is forced to confront facts on the ground that compel it to cut its losses.