Carl von Clausewitz observed in his classic On War that “the maximum use of force is by no means incompatible with the simultaneous use of the intellect.” That means, in part, acting thoughtfully but with the utmost effort, understanding that war is more bar fight than chess game. Or, to put it in the simpler words of Jim Malone, Eliot Ness’s counselor in The Untouchables, “You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way! And that’s how you get Capone.”
Al Capone is an apt analogy for what the West confronts in Russia: a particularly noxious mix of Mafia mentality, hypernationalist ideology, and totalitarian technique. Elegance is not the Russian way, and it cannot be our way. This is the light in which one should measure the accomplishments of NATO’s recent gathering in Madrid.
The tangible efforts that Western leaders announced were impressive in many respects, particularly the commitments to provide Ukraine with nearly 500 artillery systems, 600 tanks, hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition, and more. The question, as always, is whether these will be delivered as swiftly as they can be absorbed, and whether the United States and its allies are “leading the target” by putting in place now the infrastructure to prepare Ukraine for the weapons it will require and hopefully receive one, two, or six months from now, and for training the large forces it must mobilize.
The United States made some incremental additional commitments of forces to Europe, including two destroyers for a naval base in Spain. The policy declarations were important as well: a decision to expand by an order of magnitude NATO’s high-readiness forces; a formal recognition of the challenge (NATO avoided for now the word threat) posed by China; and an agreement to welcome Finnish and Swedish applications to join the alliance.
But these moves, beneficial as they may be, only partly meet the needs of the moment. Time and again Ukraine has demonstrated its ability to absorb high-end military hardware and deploy it quickly and effectively. This seems to be the case with HIMARS, the mobile rocket systems that are extremely accurate, and with which Ukrainian forces seem to be already hitting Russian ammunition dumps and military headquarters. Instead of the promised eight, the Ukrainians need 80, and work should be happening now to scale up transfers of these and like weapons as fast as possible.
What the Biden administration still struggles with is the ultimate purpose of Western assistance to Ukraine. At his press conference, the president said that the United States and its allies would not “allow Ukraine to be defeated.” That is the wrong objective. It should be, rather, to ensure Russia’s defeat—the thwarting of its aims to conquer yet more of Ukrainian territory, the smashing of its armed forces, and the doing of both in a convincing, public, and, yes, therefore humiliating way. Chicago rules, in other words.
In the same way, the administration is wrong to titrate arms out of a misguided desire to avoid provoking Russian escalation or enabling the Ukrainians to do too much. The West is in a moment of military-industrial crisis; it should be taking concrete measures to ramp up industrial mobilization, with the goal of equipping Ukraine to the maximum while rearming the expanding forces of a newly awakened NATO.
Even as Western allies counter Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they must also meet the broader and longer-term threat that Russia poses to the eastern members of NATO, particularly the Baltic states.
The Western allies will not invade Russia, nor will they overthrow its regime directly—one day, hopefully, Russians will do that. Putin is motivated by imperial fantasies of imitating Peter the Great and other, even less savory Russian leaders. And Putin’s successor, should the Russian leader die or become incapacitated while in office, will likely be no better. For evidence of that, one need only consult the ravings of key advisers such as Nikolai Patrushev. If and when the battles cease in Ukraine, Russia’s intentions to expand and subjugate its neighbors will remain.
The good news here is that if one sets aside misleading memories of World War II and the Cold War, and disregards the ominous mutterings of experts who exaggerated Russian capacity before the war, then it becomes obvious that Russia is a weak state.
Russia’s GDP is less than that of South Korea. Its leadership is afraid to openly mobilize its middle class, so it refuses to declare war and send young men from Moscow and St. Petersburg to the slaughterhouse that is the Donbas. Its generals are, for the most part, incompetent, which is why purges of them continue. It is scraping the bottom of its manpower barrel and so raises to absurd heights the age level of potential service members. Corruption and indiscipline have rotted out its maintenance and low-level leadership. What it has is Cold War–era stockpiles of weapons and munitions (and those are huge, but finite); some pockets of excellence, for example its railroad units; and utter disregard for human life throughout the chain of command.
Even so, a mangy, myopic, and rabid bear is still a dangerous beast. That’s why beating Russian forces in Ukraine is not enough. The West must impose upon Russia sanctions intended not, as the current ones are, to punish, but rather to enfeeble (Chicago rules, again). The plummeting of Russian car production is an example of a basic fact, which is that Russian production depends, more than one might think, on access to Western chips, machine tools, and special materials. However the Ukraine war ends, permanently or temporarily, the West needs to settle into a comprehensive sanctions regime that will weaken Russia’s economy in the long haul and throttle its ability to rearm on a large scale when the shooting stops.
NATO expansion should assist in this process. The alliance will soon in all likelihood have Sweden and Finland as full members. They have real and potential capacity (Finland more the former, Sweden more the latter) and serious political leadership. But a NATO of 32 members will be even more unwieldy than what we now have.
The solution—which cannot be publicly declared—is a NATO-within-NATO. Germany, France, and Italy have the largest economies in the European Union and in theory should carry the most weight in European-security decision making as well. But they cannot. Germany, the proverbial Hamlet of nations, is fatally compromised by its unwillingness and inability to make good on military commitments, and its recent sordid past in enabling Russia’s growth and stranglehold on European energy supplies. France is domestically torn, while the overweening vanity of its presidents makes it difficult for them to get a receptive hearing from lesser mortals. Italy, as ever, produces statesmen on occasion, but not statesmanship.
A nascent coalition of powers is, however, willing to take Russia seriously and has the muscle to thwart her while bringing less resolute European states along. The Eastern European and Baltic states, with Poland in the lead, know Russian tyranny firsthand, and are ready to stand up to it; the Scandinavian states, in particular Finland and Norway, are almost as intent; the English-speaking external powers, including the United Kingdom and Canada, are similarly alive and determined. It is to this core group that American statecraft must look.
The British chief of the General Staff recently described the Ukraine crisis as a 1937 moment for the West. It was an acute historical comparison. In that year the Sino-Japanese war began, setting the stage for World War II. In that year the West had before it choices that could have avoided the horrors of a far worse conflict, but it ducked.
To their credit, in the current moment, Western leaders are performing far better than did their counterparts 85 years ago—but not yet well enough. We’re dealing with Capone, and while, like Eliot Ness, we need to stay within the constraints of law and basic decency, we also need to apply Chicago rules.