Russia on Friday launched one of its most withering and consequential missile attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, reportedly firing 76 cruise missiles, hitting multiple cities across the country. Ukrainian officials said half the country was without electricity, Kharkiv being completely deenergized.
Adding to Ukraine’s woes, the top four officials in Ukraine warned on Thursday that Russia was preparing for a massive new offensive.
Ukraine may not be adequately prepared for this possible attack and have requested massive new support from the West – a request which, if fulfilled, could place U.S. national security at unacceptable risk.
The Economist on Thursday published a series of three articles assessing the Russia-Ukraine war from the perspectives of the top three officials in Kyiv: President Volodymyr Zelensky, Commander of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Valery Zaluzhny, and Commander of Ukraine’s ground force, Oleskandr Syrsky. On the same day in The Guardian, Minister of Defense Oleskii Reznikov echoed their warnings.
Their unified assessment exposed, for the first time in a public forum, that Ukraine’s position in its war against Russia is more perilous than commonly realized – and that to have a chance to win, they must receive massive additional military and financial support, primarily from the United States.
This puts the U.S. in a precarious position, as Washington must balance the scope of the requests made by Kyiv against the impacts it would have on the United States’ own national security. The reality is that the interests of Kyiv – however valid for their country – are not synonymous with America’s. The bottom line up front: the United States can help Ukraine defend itself but must put the brakes on when supplying Kyiv puts our own national security at risk.
Zaluzhny explained that Russia was putting pressure on Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) throughout the “1,500km frontline.” It is crucial, the general pointed out, “to hold this line and not lose any more ground” because it is “ten to 15 times harder to liberate it than not to surrender it.” Behind the frontlines, Zaluzhny said the Russians were building a new massive force to launch a winter offensive. “We estimate they have a reserve of 1.2 to 1.5 million people,” he said, but are preparing a concentration of “some 200,000 fresh troops” to attack the already-stretched Ukrainian lines.
To prepare for this invasion force, the commanding general is trying to limit the number of troops he places on the frontlines so he too can prepare a defensive force in a secure area away from the fighting. “May the soldiers in the trenches forgive me,” Zaluzhny requested, because he had to prepare striking forces for combat “for the more protracted and heavier battles” he expects in January or February.
“I know I can beat this enemy,” he declared, “but I need resources. I need 300 tanks, 600-700 IFVs (infantry fighting vehicles), (and) 500 howitzers.” Zaluzhny would, he said, “be talking to Milley (Gen. Mark Milley, U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) about this.” The UAF needs this much military hardware to have any chance to accomplish the objective Zelensky has given his generals.
“(The Ukrainian people) do not want to compromise on territory,” the president said, “and that is why it is very important…to go to our borders from 1991” – which includes Crimea. Getting more equipment to enable Ukraine to retake all territory lost since before 2014 illuminates two major conundrums for Washington.
First, if Zaluzhny is right and with that much new kit his troops could drive Russian troops back, and if Zelensky does intend to militarily recapture Crimea, the chances would rise precipitously that Russia could resort to tactical nuclear weapons. Second, its not clear at all where the West would get the amount of armor the Ukrainian general is requesting. The approximately 1,500 units of armored vehicles Zaluzhny is seeking would be, according to the Economist, an arsenal “bigger than the total armoured (sic) forces of most European armies.”
Already the United States and most other Western European nations have given so many weapons and ammunition to Ukraine that their own arsenals are at dangerously low levels. Only the United States, United Kingdom, and Germany have the types of modern tanks and artillery pieces Ukraine is seeking, and none have thus far signed up to part with many hundreds of the vehicles their own forces require to ensure their national security.
If Biden gives Zelensky all the weapons his generals are requesting (along with an expanded training program of Ukrainian soldiers the Pentagon has just announced), it is possible Ukraine could make enough progress in time to drive Russia out of Ukraine. But supplying Ukraine – a nation with whom we have no mutual defense treaty – with the scope of their request would put U.S. national security at risk by depleting our own armored force.
Conversely, if we gave up the hundreds of tanks and other armored vehicles and put Russian control of Crimea in danger, the chances of Putin resorting to nuclear weapons would be through the roof. Just days ago Putin argued that if Russian territory were put at risk, he would consider using nuclear weapons. Russians across the political spectrum consider Crimea “sacred” Russian territory. It would be foolhardy to facilitate and support a Ukrainian attack into the Crimea that could spawn a nuclear response.
Ukraine’s national security interests in this war are clear and justified. They will do any and everything within their power to eject the Russian invaders. No one in the West questions their attitudes or objectives. However, it is crucial to point out that America’s vital national interests are not synonymous with Ukraine’s.
Regardless of the degree to which Americans sympathize with the Ukrainian victims of this war, the first and overriding responsibility of Washington is to ensure the safety and security of our country, while fulfilling our mutual defense treaty obligations to NATO allies.
If gratifying Kyiv’s desire for weapons puts our own security at risk, we must decline. If supporting Ukraine militarily creates a high risk for a desperate Putin to resort to nuclear weapons, we must again decline to go that far, as our own population and allies would likely be drawn into a no-win war.
Helping Ukraine is understandable, and no one can question the massive amount of help we have thus far provided. It is an obligation on President Biden, however, to ensure that help for others doesn’t put our own nation at mortal risk.
Also a 1945 Contributing Editor, Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis