More than two months into Russia’s bloody war of territorial conquest in Ukraine, it’s fair to say that it has not gone as most observers expected it would.
A Russian blitz on the capital, Kyiv, failed. Moscow’s slower, more methodical siege of the city collapsed, and Russian forces retreated—leaving in their wake the visible atrocities they committed against Ukrainian civilians. Moscow’s army has since regrouped, focusing on Ukraine’s East in the effort to consolidate gains in and around the Donbas region and along the Azov Sea coast. That advance, too, has stalled. Cities that should have fallen weeks ago—including Kharkiv and, miraculously, Mariupol—have not. Territory that the Russians once fully controlled is now “contested.” And Ukrainian forces are conducting productive counter-offensives against Russian positions.
What accounts for Ukraine’s battlefield successes? In part, it’s Ukraine’s will to resist, which was unduly discounted by Eurasian foreign affairs analysts. Russia’s antiquated tactical posture, logistical mishaps, and poor planning have also contributed to Moscow’s humiliation. Finally, a sustained Western commitment to providing Ukraine with sophisticated weapons platforms has helped give the country a fighting chance to fend off the Russian onslaught.
Much of what the West—and the U.S., in particular—have given Ukrainian forces was not long ago considered profoundly escalatory and dangerous. It wasn’t some new theory of war or a compelling legal doctrine that changed Western minds. Mounting evidence suggests that Russia has overextended itself. In revealing its limitations, Russia imbued Ukraine’s Western benefactors with the confidence they needed to act boldly in Kyiv’s defense.
In late February, as Russian forces poured over Ukraine’s borders and Western officials quietly came to terms with Kyiv’s inevitable defeat, the Biden administration engaged in a careful legal analysis to determine what it could do to support Ukraine with the limited time it had while avoiding the appearance of direct engagement with Russian forces. Administration officials told NBC News reporters that the National Security Council’s lawyers fretted over the possibility that giving Ukraine sophisticated weapons like stinger missiles, drones, and other heavy weaponry or providing Ukrainian forces with actionable intelligence could compel Moscow to label America a co-belligerent in the conflict.
In a way, the lawyers were right. The U.S. did provide Ukraine with all of the above, albeit in stages, and the results have been profoundly escalatory.
America and its NATO allies flooded Ukraine with anti-armor missiles when the country was fending off armored assaults on its cities. They shifted to giving Ukraine long-range artillery when the conflict evolved from an asymmetric war against an invading force to a fight involving set-piece battles between near-peer competitors. The U.S. has reportedly been providing Ukraine with actionable intelligence that, according to the Ukrainian government’s claim, allowed forces loyal to Kyiv to neutralize no fewer than 12 Russian generals. Ukraine has even received fighter aircraft and replacement parts, even though the Biden administration spent several days in March arguing with itself over how that could be done without triggering a Russian response.
The escalations have been proceeding apace. Russia has just not responded in the ways the West feared they might. And that seems to be because Russia can’t react as the West had feared.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu warned on Wednesday that Moscow would deem transports from NATO member states delivering weapons to Ukraine legitimate targets. The threat heightened concerns that Russia could menace or destroy NATO assets inside or even outside Ukraine, to which NATO would be compelled to respond. This was not a new threat but a restatement of the position Russia has maintained since early March. And though Russia retains the capacity to execute missile strikes on stationary targets in Western Ukraine, it’s limited in its ability to do much more than that.
The skies over Ukraine are still contested. Indeed, operating fixed-wing aircraft over Western Ukraine is a terribly dangerous proposition. Russia is limited in its ability to strike moving targets and unable to maintain an active presence over the areas where NATO is transferring weapons into Ukraine. Moscow’s air war over its beleaguered neighbor is so constrained, in fact, that it is still trying to secure air superiority over Eastern Ukraine. Russian forces are still introducing anti-access and area-denial systems into the Donbas, where Russian forces are most concentrated. While total Russian superiority in the skies over Donbas is the goal, one they may soon succeed in securing, they’re not there yet.
In late April, CNN observed that the Biden administration had abandoned its previously cautious approach toward antagonizing the Kremlin because “the scope of the war” had changed. But that scope had not broadened; it narrowed in a way that convinced Western policymakers that Russian bluster was only that.
There are still many risks involved with engagement in Ukraine, and the threat posed by NATO’s direct engagement with Russian forces is prohibitive. Even the prospect of accidental conflict between Moscow and the Atlantic Alliance must be avoided. But the risk the West fears most—the use of an unconventional weapon to achieve a strategic goal in Ukraine—carries with it the risk of unconventional strategic warfare involving not just the West but Russia, too. Early on in the conflict, it was hard to say whether the Kremlin was crazy enough to play a game of nuclear chicken. It may yet be, but nuclear saber-rattling has accomplished all it can for now—and it cannot even dissuade Sweden and Finland from seeking NATO membership.
What was once unthinkable is now not just possible but increasingly likely: Russia will lose its war of choice in Ukraine. The scope of Kyiv’s victory depends on many factors, but one of the most important is the continued provision of Western lethal aid to Ukraine. Western policymakers have gotten the message. Our prohibitive fear of what Russia would do to Ukraine and the West has been properly replaced with the understanding that Russia should be afraid of us.