Sometimes it’s hard to tell if President Biden and his strategists want Ukraine to win its defensive war against Russia, or merely survive to sign a truth with more of its former territory under Russian control. That ambivalence is returning as an issue as Russian forces make new military gains in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
On Monday Russian troops moved into the center of Severodonetsk, one of the last major Ukrainian strongholds in the Donbas, which is the industrial heart of the country. The advances followed relentless artillery and rocket barrages on the city that resemble the destruction of Mariupol.
Ukrainians held out for weeks in Mariupol but, surrounded and with many grievously wounded, the remaining forces surrendered this month. Their fate is unknown, and let’s hope they will be released in a prisoner swap. But that victory has freed Russian forces to mount the assault on Severodonetsk. A Russian victory there would free up those forces to expand their attacks.
The Russians have an artillery and rocket advantage in range and firepower and can inflict horrible losses on Ukrainian troops. Ukrainian forces have received some howitzers from the US, but they also need rocket-launch systems that can fire from longer range. The best defense against artillery is artillery and air power, including rockets. US rocket systems would reduce Russia’s artillery edge and perhaps slow its advance.
The Pentagon has been leaking that the US may soon provide some medium-range rocket systems to Ukraine, but Mr. Biden said on Sunday that “we are not going to send to Ukraine rocket systems that strike into Russia.” Once again Mr. Biden is reassuring
about what the US won’t do.
The President didn’t elaborate, but presumably he’s afraid that sending rockets might provoke Mr. Putin. Ukraine has already struck weapons depots inside Russia so the Kremlin has a harder time reinforcing its troops in the Donbas. But if the US wants Ukraine to fire rockets only at targets inside Ukraine, surely it can make that clear.
The rocket-system reluctance reflects the White House attitude before and throughout this war. Another example is the refusal to rally a coalition of the willing to break Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian grain exports in the Black Sea. Ukraine supplies much of the world’s wheat and oil seeds, and world leaders are warning of shortages and price spikes. Food riots are possible in many countries.
“Many countries in the world depend on Ukrainian grain,” Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said last week. ”As for what we’re doing about it, right now, we are—we don’t have any US naval vessels in the Black Sea. We don’t intend to unless directed.” I added, “It’s a no-go for commercial shipping.”
Again the US is offering a pre-emptive concession that lets Russia get away with putting more economic pressure on Ukraine and the West without fear of a response. This is no way to win a war, or even to force a stalemate on favorable terms for Ukraine.
Mr. Putin hasn’t given up his designs to topple Kyiv and directly threaten NATO, and Mr. Biden’s ambivalence in aiding Ukraine encourages the Russian to believe he can still achieve a strategic victory.
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Appeared in the May 31, 2022, print edition.