Ukraine’s friends have poured a considerable amount of weaponry into the nation’s fight for survival. The United States alone has provided more than $25 billion of matériel, including 160 modern artillery pieces, 38 medium-range HIMARS rocket systems, hundreds of armored vehicles, and tens of thousands of advanced munitions of all types. Allies such as Poland and the Czech Republic have done even more (in relative, not absolute terms), supplying hundreds of Soviet-model tanks, an array of modern artillery systems, and all kinds of nonlethal support. Even hesitant Germany has sent a score of advanced guns and missile launchers, some antiaircraft systems, and more. In total, the West has sent more than 320 tanks, 2,400 other armored vehicles, 450 artillery pieces, and more than 135 air-defense systems to Ukraine, and more is on the way.
This is still not enough.
With the material aid from the West, as well as intelligence support and similarly discreet training and advising efforts, Ukraine has been able, by its own extraordinary efforts, to drive Russian forces from Kyiv in the north, Kharkiv in the east, and Kherson city in the south. To finish liberating its territory, however, and to decisively defeat Russia’s forces, Ukraine needs not only greater quantities but also different types of arms, including modern battle tanks, extensive air and antiballistic-missile defenses, and, above all, deep-attack systems such as the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) and long-range unmanned aerial vehicles. With such weapons, Ukraine can and will repeat and expand the disruption of Russian logistics that enabled its earlier counteroffensives.
Russia has been badly bloodied. Of its prewar army, perhaps a quarter of its troops were killed or wounded in its initial attacks on Ukraine. A hastily mobilized force of men swept up in a press-ganging effort is also suffering casualties at a horrific rate. But the losses have not yet broken the Russian army or the determination of the Putin regime in Moscow. Indeed, Ukrainian sources report that a new mobilization is being prepared with the aim of more than doubling the size of the Russian military to a total force of as many as 2 million personnel.
The Russian military is, by Western standards, poorly motivated, poorly trained, badly led, and inadequately supported. Its units have to be kept at the front by the fear of blocking units that will gun down soldiers fleeing the battlefield. Its maintenance practices are primitive, its rations outdated, its command unable to coordinate the combined-arms operations of modern war. But Russia retains three large advantages.
The first is, simply, size. With a population of 146 million, it still has plenty of bodies it can throw into the fight against Ukraine, a country of 43 million people, perhaps a third of whom have become refugees or have been internally displaced. Russia also retains vast stocks of military matériel accumulated during the Cold War—even if those have now been depleted. These are dwindling strengths, as skilled young men flee the country and sanctions retard and disrupt the war economy, but for now they matter.
Russia’s other advantages are less tangible. One of these is sheer ruthlessness. President Vladimir Putin and his generals simply do not care, from a human point of view, how many tens or even hundreds of thousands of their soldiers are killed or mutilated in war. They equally have no compunction about inflicting mayhem on Ukrainian civilians in apartment blocks, schools, or hospitals. They will feed soldiers and civilians alike into the furnace of war until such behavior threatens their own survival.
Russia has, in addition, the benefits of a homeland sanctuary. Ukraine has managed a few daring strikes into Russian territory, but it has not yet been able to inflict militarily significant damage there, much less to ruin the Russian economy.
Against these strengths, Ukraine has many and indeed more of its own. This war has reminded us of the transcendent importance of motivation. Ukrainians know what they are fighting for, and they will go on to the end. They have a growing edge in skill over their enemy, and all the creativity of a free society and an engaged civilian population that supports the front in many ways; this includes creating improvised drone squadrons and articles of war, and supplying food and tactical information to frontline units.
Wars are, in some measure, tests of a society’s will and resilience, and this one has shown just how different Russia and Ukraine are. Wars are also a test of vitality. Putin is 70; Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is 44. Russia’s chief of the general staff (and now overall commander in Ukraine), Valery Gerasimov, is 67; Ukraine’s chief of staff, Valeriy Zaluzhny, is 49. Support for Russia’s war is strongest among those who remember the Soviet Union, and the war is being conducted by the aging men in Putin’s inner circle.
In contrast, support for Ukraine’s war is across the board, and the war is being led by a generation in its prime, no more than middle-aged. This is, in many ways, a war between a calcified society lost in its brutal past and a free society looking toward a decent future.
Behind Ukraine lie the powers of the West, understood in the old-fashioned sense of a free coalition of states led by the United States. Despite understandable fretting about the slowness of its military-industrial mobilization, the Western allies have enormous and growing capacity, and they have—too slowly, and at times even stingily—provided Ukraine with battlefield technology that outmatches that deployed by Russia. Over time, that disparity will grow, if the Western commitment matches even a fraction of that of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers.
“War weariness” in Western democracies is a tired trope. We in the West are sacrificing nothing beyond modest financial resources—no comparison to the blood tax paid by the people of Ukraine. As a number of analysts have noted, spending some tens of billions of dollars to shatter the land and air forces of one of our chief opponents, Russia, is a bargain. Spending some tens of billions of dollars more, for as long as it takes, is no less worth it.
Ukraine’s most urgent needs are, as Kyiv has made clear, air and ballistic-missile defenses, heavy tanks, and long-range strike systems. It has received some of the defense systems, but not yet the armor and offensive weapons. The excuses that Germany, in the first case, and the United States, in the latter case, have made for not freeing up the supply of Leopard tanks and systems such as ATACMS are at once flimsy and shameful.
Ukrainians have repeatedly shown themselves able to master complex military technology with astonishing speed. An honest audit of how long Western experts expected Ukrainians would need to learn how to operate them, and how long it actually took them, would be revealing and embarrassing. Similarly, Ukraine has shown remarkable restraint: The idea that long-range missile systems would be used to strike indiscriminately into Russia has no credible support. And fears of Russian escalation to the use of nuclear weapons have been discredited repeatedly, including in The Atlantic.
The real reasons for reluctance look to be timidity and a lack of imagination. So perhaps the best thing for Western leaders who cannot bring themselves to treat war as war is to clarify for them what they have to fear if they do not take the actions that both strategic calculations and moral imperatives demand.
Because Russia is big, ruthless, and counting on the sanctuary of its territory, the war can be concluded on reasonable terms only by the decisive defeat of its forces in Ukraine—their elimination by flight, capture, wounds, or death. Some 100,000 casualties have not been enough, but Russia’s will and resources are not infinite. If Moscow’s losses have to be several times that, the West has the ability to ensure such an outcome with little risk to itself. If Ukraine has heavy armor and long-range strike systems, the Russian position in occupied land can be rendered untenable. A defeat of that magnitude will likely bring about the internal changes that will deter Russia from pursuing its present path.
Should Western leaders, through their passivity or reluctance, bring about a cease-fire that leaves Russia with Ukrainian territory under its control, they would disgrace themselves as much the French and British leaders did at Munich in 1938—and with less excuse. They will lay the grounds for future wars because, after some period of recuperation, Russia will surely try again. Already, Russia does not recognize the legitimacy of Ukrainian independence; already, blood is on Western hands because of a failure to arm Ukraine and deter Russia on previous occasions. Next time will be even worse.
If fear is the only thing some Western leaders understand, they should consider this. For other nations, the lesson of a Ukraine that is not allowed to win this war is very simple: get yourself nuclear weapons. Finns, Poles, Kazakhs, Ukrainians, for that matter, and many others will conclude that conventional strength alone is not enough. That South Korea’s leadership has begun talking about the need to reintroduce nuclear weapons to the peninsula is not coincidental.
In a world where a large predatory state is stalled but not beaten decisively, the only resort for its smaller neighbors is to acquire weapons of cataclysmic power. Their leaders would be irresponsible if they did not consider that option. And the leaders of the major Western states are not just irresponsible but willfully negligent if they fail to take the measures—all well within their power—to avoid the world that this failure would bequeath to succeeding generations.