Russia has been waging its illegal genocidal war against Ukraine for a year. Critical Western support has helped Ukraine defend itself from being overrun by Russian forces. Unfortunately, as vital and important as that assistance has been, it has been tentative and piecemeal. At every stage, military aid has been accompanied by handwringing about how likely each additional capability or weapons system is to upset Vladimir Putin, or tip his fragile ego over the edge to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine or against NATO nations.
It is crucial that Western messaging about the conflict is consistent and clear. This includes how Western leaders communicate about military action that Ukraine is legally entitled to take. As it defends against Russia’s illegal invasion (in violation of Article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter), Ukraine is well within its rights to attack Russian forces inside Ukraine’s sovereign 1991 borders, and to strike Russian military targets in Russia.
As Ukraine prepares for a possible spring offensive to liberate Russian-occupied territory, NATO allies must send a unified and strong message to Russia that military support for Ukraine is in support of a sovereign state that is defending itself, as explicitly permitted by the U.N. Charter. This includes the right of Ukraine to liberate all illegally occupied sovereign Ukrainian territory, including Crimea and the Donbas. NATO leaders must make this clear and unambiguous, both in advance of the Vilnius Summit in July, and in the Summit Declaration.
Clearer and firmer messaging from the United States, the United Kingdom, and other NATO allies will diminish the impact of ill-advised statements by high-ranking policymakers and political leaders in deference to Russian “feelings.” Recently, Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat who chairs the U.S. Senate’s Armed Services Committee, was quoted in the Financial Times openly worrying about a greater risk of Russian nuclear weapons use if faced with potential collapse of the Russian army, Ukrainian advances in Crimea, or direct attacks on Russia. Since the outbreak of the war, the drumbeat of the so-called “realist” school of international relations has also preached similar caution and blamed the West for the Russian assault on Ukraine. Republicans in Congress have openly and consistently hinted at a willingness to cut support for Ukraine.
Cautious Messaging Encourages the Kremlin
This “self-deterrence” by politicians, experts, and commentators, including well-placed leaks by unnamed officials that Western support might have limits, or that crossing certain hypothetical Russian “red lines,” should be avoided. The “red lines” are frequently described as deliveries of some type of advanced weapons or possible Ukrainian advances. This includes Ukrainian advances into Crimea in particular, in deference to Russia’s illegal annexation. This overly cautious messaging, in effect amplifying threats and talking points from the Kremlin, continues to give comfort to the enemy, and frequent talk about whether Putin might use nuclear weapons at some point or other is tantamount to accepting nuclear blackmail.
While it is reasonable to consider likely Russian actions and responses to battlefield setbacks, it is unreasonable to forcefully argue, in effect on behalf of Putin, that the delivery of tanks, artillery, attack jets or other weapons systems should be avoided out of a fear of escalation. Ukraine already has fighter jets, heavy tanks, and long-range artillery, so deliveries of different versions of these weapon systems do not constitute an escalation. This should be unequivocally argued and explained publicly. Western leaders should consistently point out that none of the above constitutes an escalation, countering Russian narratives to that effect rather than humoring them.
NATO militaries and military experts know that Russia has no viable escalation strategy to bring about a strategic change in this war. U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley was unequivocal on this point recently, stating that Russia has lost “strategically, operationally and tactically.” Using a tactical nuclear weapon, becoming the first state to do so since 1945, is likely to make Russia an international pariah, redouble Ukrainian resolve, and not meaningfully alter the military situation given the dispersal of Ukrainian military forces.
Russia’s military capacity clearly has been strained by this war; it hardly has the ability to expand its war against Ukraine in some fashion by picking a fight with NATO, such as striking logistics bases in Poland or acting on its many other threats against NATO allies. Any such attacks would be met with a quick and powerful response. The only message delivered to current and future Russian leadership should be that military adventurism and aggression of this sort will be met with a collective, unwavering Western response, and this should be consistently reflected in high-level messaging.
More Direct and Lethal Support
Noble and worthwhile as Western efforts have been in not seeking direct confrontation with Russian armed forces, this should not restrict support to the Ukrainian defense effort. Western allies should provide more direct and lethal support without hesitation or delay. Each new type of equipment supplied should not come with messaging caveats about future support, as we saw with decisions to supply main battle tanks, which were followed immediately by hedging against supplying combat aircraft.
Further, NATO support to military logistics and maintenance inside Ukraine, stepped up efforts to defend and repair civilian infrastructure targeted by Russia, and a timely and effective delivery of humanitarian aid is long overdue. While the alliance may not yet be ready to deploy troops inside Ukraine in these support roles, similar capabilities can be delivered by civilian and military contractors, as we have seen in previous conflicts.
Putin’s only viable strategy is to outlast Western patience by pursuing a bloody and brutal war of attrition that would achieve his goal of ending legitimate Ukrainian aspirations to join the European Union and NATO, with his ultimate goal being the end of Ukrainian statehood. The ongoing imprecise and inconsistent messaging by Western leaders offers Putin hope that this is a viable strategy and undermines Ukrainian confidence. Russia is not at war with NATO, but it is engaged in a battle of wills with the West. Every time Western officials suggest that Ukraine limit its war aims, including being willing to trade sovereign territory for peace, they pander to Putin and place at risk the international norms that benefit all principled nations and their citizens.
Stopping attempts to change borders by force is the right thing to do, as the founders of the United Nations agreed almost 80 years ago. It is also a powerful signal to other ambitious autocrats who are eyeing their neighbors and dreaming of annexation through force, as was the norm before 1945. The post-war international system, flawed as it is, deserves better. We should avoid self-deterring from protecting and improving it, as the alternative offered by Russia and other autocratic states will only lead to an age of unrestrained conflict.