Stop treating Ukraine like a chemistry experiment

Opinion piece (Encompass)
11 July 2023

It’s nearly fifty years since I did chemistry at school, but I still remember experiments where we gradually added different alkaline substances to an acid. As the pH indicator in the test tube changed from red to green, we were supposed to measure how much of different substances it took to neutralise a given amount of acid. If you dumped too much in and the indicator went blue, you couldn't get the result you needed. 

It strikes me that Western countries are still approaching Ukraine like careful chemists, trying to provide just enough military help to neutralise Russia's invasion without overdoing it. It started with a few anti-tank missiles, then HIMARS, and gradually worked up to Leopard 2 tanks and Storm Shadow missiles - and now cluster munitions. At some point a few F-16s will be dropped into the test tube to see whether that will turn the indicator green. 

But Ukraine is not a chemistry experiment – it is the victim of an acid attack by an abusive ex-partner. Weighing out the neutralising agent gram by gram is the wrong response to that. The West should turn the taps on full, help Ukraine wash away the acid – and then ensure that the perpetrator pays for the crime. To get to that point, leaders in the US and Western Europe need to overcome three fears, one partly justified and two misplaced. 

The partly justified fear is that NATO members will send so many munitions to Ukraine that they will no longer be able to defend themselves. Ukraine is using NATO-standard missiles and 155mm artillery ammunition much faster than its partners can currently produce them. The EU is investing €2.5 billion in providing ammunition from existing stocks, procuring it from defence manufacturers, and increasing longer term manufacturing capacity to meet demand. The UK has announced a new order for ammunition that will mean expanding production facilities. The US and other allies are also increasing production. So stocks will eventually be replenished, but it will take time.

On the other hand, the most likely adversary for most NATO armed forces would be Russia – and the damage Ukraine is doing to Russian forces reduces the risk of Russia ever contemplating an attack on a NATO country. That is presumably the calculation some NATO countries have already made. The Czech Republic has delivered or has promised to deliver more than 30 per cent of its holdings of heavy weapons (tanks, artillery and multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS – such as HIMARS) to Ukraine; Norway and the UK more than 25 per cent. But the average across NATO allies is around 5 per cent. Only the US, which also has to think about its defence commitments in the Indo-Pacific region, has a reasonable excuse for holding back so much. The rest of NATO should be making sure that this war is won, not keeping their weapons in store in preparation for the next one.

The first unjustified fear is that the West will supply Ukraine with something so intolerable to Vladimir Putin that he will start a nuclear war. Speaking in May 2023, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan described Joe Biden’s policy on arming Ukraine as doing "everything we can to support Ukraine in its defence of its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and … proceed[ing] in a way that avoids World War Three". Biden himself said in June that he worried about Putin using tactical nuclear weapons: "It's real". Putin will have taken note: his nuclear sabre-rattling is effective, in that it deters the US and its allies from all-out support for Ukraine. Recent articles by Russian foreign and security policy commentators well-known in the West, like Sergey Karaganov and Dmitri Trenin, suggesting that Russia should use nuclear weapons to bring the war in Ukraine to an end on its terms, are presumably designed to increase Western anxiety.

The correct answer to Putin’s nuclear posturing, however, is not to back off, but to remind him that if he is mad enough to attack a NATO member state or use nuclear weapons against Ukraine, the alliance can do incalculable damage to Russia’s military infrastructure even without resorting to nuclear weapons. Putin has repeatedly shown that in practice he does not want to confront NATO directly. Deterrence still works, for those countries covered by a nuclear umbrella; Ukraine’s misfortune is that in 2008 NATO leaders left it outside.  

The second unjustified fear is the fear of Russia losing. George Beebe, a former head of Russia analysis at the CIA, wrote after Yevgeny Prigozhin's abortive mutiny on 23-23 June  "mainstream commentary was and remains short-sighted about the broader dangers to America if Russia were indeed to descend into internal crisis". The history of the last thirty years, however, suggests that Russia's neighbours – and countries further afield – are safer when Russia is weak and dealing with internal problems than when it is strong and confident.  In any case, it is not in the West's gift to decide what happens to Putin or the Putinist system if Russian forces are defeated and driven out of Ukraine. But there is no good reason for the West to prefer an outcome to the war that gives Putin a partial victory and extends the brutal Russian occupation of 17 per cent of Ukraine’s territory.

Despite the protests of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, NATO is discussing a formula on Ukraine's prospects for NATO membership that will effectively leave Kyiv in the same grey zone it has occupied since NATO's 2008 Bucharest Summit. The least NATO can do to compensate for this failure of imagination and will is to supply Ukraine with weapons, including aircraft, on a much larger scale. As retired RAF Air Marshal Edward Stringer wrote recently, "We have restricted Kyiv to fighting in a way that we would not, and to take casualties that we would not". It's time to stop measuring how much Ukraine can achieve with how little. Instead, NATO allies should equip it to defeat Russia quickly and comprehensively, rather than letting the war grind on, costing even more lives. And as soon as the fighting is over, it should bring Ukraine into NATO.

Ian Bond is director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform.