Don’t Let Up Now

The West must do what it takes to help Ukraine prevail.

Ukrainian troops outside the town of Novoluhanske
Aris Messinis / AFP / Getty

About the author: Eliot A. Cohen is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, a professor at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and the Arleigh Burke chair in strategy at CSIS. From 2007 to 2009, he was the Counselor of the Department of State. He is the author most recently of The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force.

Russia appears to be revising its strategy in Ukraine. In place of the go-for-broke attempt to swallow the country in a hundred-hour war, to be completed with a tank parade in the Kyiv Maidan and a semi-annexation, some Russian leaders now talk more modestly of operations in the Donbas. Movements on the ground would seem, for the moment, to confirm this shift. The question is how the West—and in particular, the United States—should react, especially if the negotiations between Ukraine and Russia edge toward some kind of truce.

Nothing in Russia’s pronouncements or behavior suggests that the long-term goal of the Putin regime has shifted from the desire to subjugate Ukraine, replacing President Volodymyr Zelensky and his subordinates with a quisling government and eliminating the country’s independence in all but name. Indeed, the apocalyptic rhetoric of Russian news commentators and senior civilian leaders suggests that the war’s aim has not changed. The giddy aspirations of February 24, though, have encountered the realities of the battlefield. Delusions are often modified by the sight of hundreds of burning vehicles.

Truly magnificent Ukrainian resistance—heroic and clever at once—backed by Western arms and intelligence accounts for much of this. But just as much credit for the shattering of Russian illusions lies in a phenomenon long known to military sociologists: that armies, by and large, reflect the qualities of the societies from which they emerge. This is particularly true of militaries that rely on conscription, a fact that has been demonstrated starkly here.

The Russian state, and much of the elite society beneath it, rests on corruption, lies, lawlessness, and coercion. The state has bred an army at the mercy of corrupt bureaucrats, contractors, and soldiers. Small wonder that Russian soldiers have been issued rations that expired a decade ago and first-aid bandages that are 45 years old. The state lied to its soldiers about what their mission was and who their enemy was. Authoritarian and paranoid, it has thus far refused to appoint an overall commander. Brutal in the extreme to others, it has failed to repatriate the bodies of its own soldiers. Rigid and dictatorial, it has deployed a force in which initiative is rare among junior and noncommissioned officers, which is why the generals have to go to the front, where no fewer than seven have been killed. With its elites acquiring magnificent yachts from the national wealth they have plundered, it is little surprise that its stockpiled missiles have high failure rates, that the cheap tires on its vehicles burst, and that we have begun seeing incidents of soldiers trying to kill their commanders.

The new Russian strategy may look like one of limited aims; it is more accurately thought of, following Carl von Clausewitz, as a strategy of exhaustion (Ermattungsstrategie) replacing one of overthrow (Niederwerfungsstrategie). This strategy, which will involve even more brutalization of Ukrainian civilians, may not work either. Russia will have to draw on reserve forces that are untrained and weapons that have deteriorated in storage. As it attempts to regain the initiative it has largely lost, it may be forced, for now, to reduce its objectives.

One part of the strategic shift, therefore, will probably be an intensification of negotiations, seeking to divide the Ukrainians and the West by offering cease-fires, temporary withdrawals to new lines, and the like. This, then, is as good a moment as any for the West to reconsider its own objectives and its strategy, for the months and years ahead.

For Western powers to accept, let alone advocate for, anything less than what Ukrainians are willing to accept is unthinkable, even by way of an interim settlement. Their land, their blood, and their struggle have bought time for other post-Soviet states. Beyond this, the West wants a Ukraine that is both free and strong: free because morality and interest demand it, and strong because without military power, freedom will remain unachievable.

A free and strong Ukraine is not, however, simply a matter of decency, though it is that. Ukraine will be the barrier behind which the West can repair its shocking neglect of military power in the past decades. If Ukraine prevails, its example will be at least a partial deterrent to further adventures by Russia, and perhaps by China. And it will deny Russia its most important objective—the re-creation, in subtler form, of the old Russian empire.

In Warsaw, Poland, President Joe Biden blurted out that Vladimir Putin needs to go. His embarrassed staffers quickly and implausibly walked that back, but of course he is right. This is Putin’s war, and it will be his humiliation; none of Russia’s neighbors will be safe so long as he is in power. The United States will not march to Moscow, but it would do well to signal to the security elite in Russia that their country has no future with Putin in charge.

But Putin may not fall quickly. And even if he does, he may very well be succeeded by a dictator or dictatorial clique almost as problematic as he. (Almost, because there is a difference between a thug and a thug who has had the chastening experience of seeing his predecessor eliminated for adventurism.) For some period of time, therefore, it will be in the West’s interests to keep Russia weak, internally divided, and militarily impotent. A liberalizing revolution may come, because nothing is impossible, but there is no reason to act as though it has already arrived or is imminent.

Thus, the West should support Ukraine by extending only limited promises of sanctions relief to Russia, and it most definitely should not reward Moscow by lifting them entirely should Russia accept a status quo ante cease-fire. And even when official sanctions are lifted, it makes sense to discourage Western companies from doing business there by every means possible.

This sounds harsh, and it is. But there is another Clausewitzian truth to be faced here, that war is a contest not just of armies but of societal wills, and the West must aim to break Russia’s societal will through the grinding up of its army and the devastation of its economy. The deaths of many more young soldiers and considerable suffering for Russians who did not choose this war are dreadful things. They are also inevitable, and the only ways to rescue the far-more-numerous victims of an unprovoked and unconscionable war of aggression.

The West will have to rearm, because for the foreseeable future it will face a hostile Eurasian bloc. To warn, as some do, that we risk throwing Russia into China’s embrace is foolish. They have already been caught in flagrante delicto, and the only long-term remedy is to convince China that it is unproductive to be locked in the embrace of a decrepit, incontinent, and failing partner.

The immediate tasks are clear: to arm and support Ukraine on the greatest possible scale and with the highest sense of urgency. That is not a matter of billions of dollars but tens of billions; not just of picking through weapons stockpiles but of authorizing emergency production of more. It certainly involves providing any weapon, including aircraft and tanks, that the sophisticated Ukrainian military can use. The notion that such weapons are offensive, as opposed to the defensive ones supplied thus far, is fatuous. French tanks in 1940 served a defensive purpose, and German anti-tank guns in that year an offensive one.

We have learned in the past month something we should have known all along: Russia under Vladimir Putin’s rule is a profoundly dangerous state. The Stalinist touches have reappeared—mass deportation of civilians, for example—and his aspirations are also obvious. Any moral person wants this war to end and suffering to cease. Any sane one, however, will realize that the stakes are enormous, and that if the guns temporarily fall silent, it will end only the first phase of the struggle.