Putin Is Cornered

The West faces a simple choice: reduce aid to Ukraine and deliver Russia a victory, or else finish the job it has begun.

An illustration featuring Volodymyr Zelensky and Vladimir Putin
Getty; U.S. Department of State; The Atlantic

President Volodymyr Zelensky is playing the role of a Ukrainian Churchill, minus some of the fantastical notions and with an infinitely better workout regimen. Like Churchill in 1940, he has been the indispensable man in a mortal crisis, without whom his country might well have been lost, and whose eloquence has rallied not only his fellow citizens but a larger democratic world.

I recently met him in Kyiv, and found him as I had hoped—relaxed, optimistic but not cocky, determined, and on top of the details of the war for survival that his country is waging successfully. Zelensky’s key subordinates—generals and ministers alike—echoed his mood: realistic, courageous, and utterly committed to ridding their country of a brutal invader. They told our small group of American, British, French, and Australian experts brought together by the Polish foreign-policy think tank PISM what they needed and—guardedly—how they assessed the enemy’s military position.

This was all reassuring and, with caveats, encouraging. But the trip also brought home the importance of that least romantic of military subjects, logistics. A visit to the transshipment points for aid to Ukraine, and discussions with Polish and Ukrainian military leaders, revealed some disquieting facts.

In total, the amount of military aid being delivered to Ukraine is indeed impressive, and not all of it is publicly tabulated; some countries provide aid but prefer not to advertise it. But the supply system operated efficiently by Poland, the U.S., and others is underutilized, operating at just 60 percent capacity, according to the professionals with whom we spoke. More to the point, there is reason to think that it may be insufficient.

Ukraine is waging modern, prolonged, industrial warfare of a kind not seen since World War II. Such wars are voracious consumers of all kinds of equipment and supplies. On some days the Russians have hurled 50,000 artillery shells at the Ukrainians, who have often lobbed as little as a tenth as many back. Yes, their guns now include superior Western models, but some of their suppliers produce fewer than 5,000 rounds a year. And yes, they are more accurate (some superaccurate, in fact), but as the Russian-military proverb has it, quantity has a quality all its own.

And there are hidden difficulties as well. NATO has adopted 155-mm-caliber artillery pieces as its standard. That does not necessarily mean, however, that one country’s shell will work with another’s gun. Moreover, even when Ukrainian crews, who have put these systems into the field with astonishing speed, can operate them effectively, sooner or later every advanced piece of military equipment requires maintenance in a rear depot rather than on the battlefield. A large infrastructure immune from Russian attacks needs to be constructed for that.

Some countries have courageously stripped their own arsenals to support Ukraine—Poland, for example, has handed over some 240 of its improved T-72 tanks (a third of its total inventory), even before American replacement tanks have begun to arrive. France has provided Ukraine with a comparable percentage of its extremely accurate CAESAR mobile artillery. But the sheer variety of aid, and the multiplicity of systems, means that the Ukrainians struggle to keep them all running and working together. They have displayed phenomenal technical ingenuity by, for example, firing American-made HARM missiles (which home in on and destroy radar systems) from their Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter planes. But in the end, now as for centuries past, nothing beats standardization.

On top of all this, Ukraine is trying to rebuild its forces along Western-equipped lines, from scratch, and in the midst of war. As our Ukrainian interlocutors made very clear, they need a lot to win: the kinds of anti-air systems that will close the sky to Russian missiles and drones, so that Ukrainian forces can operate and their civilians can live free from fear; more long-range systems (particularly ATACMS missiles from the U.S.); infantry fighting vehicles; unmanned aerial vehicles for reconnaissance and strike; and much else. And they need those supplies at the appropriate scale.

That some countries supplying Ukraine trumpet their contributions is understandable. But the question must always be not how much has been given, but how much is needed. And here, despite the large quantities flowing to Ukraine, the fact remains that it is not enough, and that the logistical system can handle more.

Some capable countries are unwilling to give at scale. Germany, which has supplied both military systems and a great deal of nonlethal aid, has declined to dip into its large inventory of mothballed tanks. Its foreign minister has insisted that in this crisis, Germany must lead; its defense minister has, in this regard, insisted that it must not.

Most other countries, including the United States, continue to refrain from the level of industrial mobilization necessary. It is too much business as usual in the defense world, as one CEO recently told me. There are increased purchases, but nothing like the focus, resources, urgency, and willingness to sweep away bureaucratic obstacles and routine procedures that characterized America’s miracles of defense production in earlier eras.

Some of the hesitancy, too, has stemmed from a patronizing wariness about Ukrainian capabilities. Yet if we have learned anything in this war, it is that the Ukrainians, smart and driven as they are, can absorb even the most advanced systems fast, and exploit them shrewdly. At this point, they know more about high-intensity warfare than we do.

But most troubling of all has been dilatoriness explainable by self-deterrence. “We’re trying to avoid World War III,” The New York Times reports President Joe Biden as repeating often, in private and in public. Not surprisingly, when the other side gets wind of that, they threaten World War III. If the president’s guidance were that, at all costs, we must avoid provoking the Russians into painting their tanks neon yellow, one could be quite certain that we would see barrels of neon-yellow paint in Red Square lined up next to a hundred of Russia’s remaining tanks.

Some of the delay is explained as well by the governmental conceit that the U.S. can “boil the frog,” supplying Ukraine new weapons in relatively modest increments without eliciting a major Russian response. Vladimir Putin is evil and has undoubtedly made large errors of judgment, but it is safe to assume that he is smarter than your average frog. He knows what is going on.

Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl recently warned of Russia feeling “backed into a corner.” But that feeling is inevitable when you launch a war of aggression with all the advantages of superior arms and surprise and get beaten, and not just beaten but clobbered.

Russia has shattered its army in Ukraine, its air force has shown itself to be timid and ineffective, and its navy has lost its Black Sea flagship and may even lose the ability to operate out of its traditional base of Sevastopol. Not only have Russia’s stocks of equipment been shown to be vitiated by corruption and even at their best inferior to that of their Western counterparts; its soldiers have in some cases mutinied, or fled the battlefield, or refused to go in the first place. It is reduced to recruiting convicts to fill the ranks.

But this is only the start. Western sanctions have crippled much of Russia’s military industry and begun a slow squeeze on the rest. Russia’s oil revenues have begun to decline as Asian states demand steep discounts for its purchase. It has thrown away its natural-gas exports to Europe without securing alternative customers. It has lost some of its brightest young people to self-chosen exile.

Meanwhile, China has not, thus far, stepped in to meet Russia’s needs, and has questioned the wisdom and even legitimacy of its junior partner’s war. Moscow may soon feel more like a vassal of Beijing than an ally. Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, a country long sympathetic to Russia, has publicly rebuked it, as has Kazakhstan, which clearly fears a Ukraine-like squeeze from Moscow—one that China has made clear it will not countenance. Russia has had to withdraw some of the forces that gave it a dominant position in Syria and Armenia. Contrary to Russian expectations, the supposedly decadent Western Europeans have braced themselves remarkably to adjust to the end of Russian energy supplies. It is unlikely now that they will fold under pressure.

More humiliation awaits, when the soldiers of the embattled garrison of Kherson, on the west bank of the Dnieper river, who may number as many as 20,000, have to flee or else surrender to the Ukrainian forces. Ukraine has boxed them in, destroyed their bridges, and gradually chewed up their artillery support.

The alternative to the cornering and humiliation of Russia would be for the United States and its allies to halt or reduce their aid to Ukraine and impose a stalemate. But that would mean delivering a victory to Russia, because it would still hold more Ukrainian territory than it did in 2014 and would have gone unpunished for pervasive war crimes, including mass murder. In three or four years, a rearmed Russia, thirsting for revenge for the losses and defeats it has suffered, would do the same thing again, and against a dispirited Ukraine. If that were to happen, it would be an utter disaster for American policy and Western security. Such an imposed stalemate would be profoundly immoral, but equally to the point, it would be profoundly stupid.

So this is indeed a dangerous moment, because Putin will inevitably find himself humiliated and cornered and may very well look for a way to lash out. But as General James Wolfe said before storming the heights of Quebec in 1759, war is an option of difficulties. The error lies in thinking that one can titrate the application of violence to achieve exquisitely precise results. To the extent that the West continues to attempt to do so, it will merely ensure more mass graves like those of Bucha and Izyum, and more soldiers lying limbless or in the burn wards of Ukrainian military hospitals. So now, as ever, Churchill’s observation that courage is the virtue that makes all others possible holds, particularly for the leaders of the embattled West. Zelensky could not put it better himself.