It’s time for Biden to escalate the Ukraine war

It's time for Biden to escalate the Ukraine war

Russia’s war crimes — the systematic murder of civilians, some shot in the head at close range while their hands were tied behind their backs — should oblige President Joe Biden to escalate the war in Ukraine. The barbarities we see on our television screens are what President Vladimir Putin is doing right now in conquered territories. He must be pushed out of them.

Until now, escalation has been treated almost universally as something to be avoided and that only Putin would attempt. Fear of war spreading across Europe or intensifying with nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction has been used to excuse Western military aid always falling short of enabling Ukraine to defeat Russia — actually winning the war.

Fears of escalation are real enough but acknowledging them must not dictate strategy or tip the West into cajoling Ukraine implicitly to accept a fragile and humiliating armistice. Biden’s hyper-calibration of help has always, then, been excessive and misguided. As a plain matter of observable fact, it has not worked.

But now there are two additional factors that weigh in the scales in favor of heightened action. Monstrous Russian brutality, exposed as the ebbing tide of Putin’s military withdraws from Kyiv’s suburbs, adds decisively to the argument that the Kremlin tyrant must be defeated on the battlefield. Worldwide revulsion at charred bodies and shallow graves would allow a forceful leader to carry public opinion with him if he laid out the case for intensified efforts that are not just different in degree but different in kind from what we have done so far.

Biden rightly but insufficiently repeated his assertion that Putin is a war criminal. Likewise, Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz vowed to step up sanctions against Russia and added, “We will continue to make weapons available to Ukraine so the country can defend itself against the Russian invasion.” Significantly, his words were almost identical to those of Biden, who said, “We have to continue to provide Ukraine with the weapons they need to continue to fight.”

What’s sadly notable is their repetitive use of the word “continue.”

“Continue” signals that there will be no change.

“Continue” implies that the right thing is already being done. Biden said “fight” and Scholz said “defend.” Neither of them said, “win.” For all the outrage and stepped-up discussion of retributive justice for war crimes (including comparisons with the trial of Nazis at Nuremberg) Biden and the West are not changing course even though they know a massacre is occurring. Remember, it is happening even as you read these words. But we’re still where we’ve been for months, dickering about and micro-measuring what we can get away with without making our enemy too cross.

Aside from war crimes, a second development now argues strongly for supplying Ukraine with weapons with which it can win. It is that neither Russia nor Ukraine seem capable of winning now, and this is likely, as Niall Fergusson argues, to extend conflict indefinitely. Or as Walter Russell Mead notes, “The logic of warfare now seems to lock the two sides into further, perhaps escalating military, economic and political conflict as each looks for some pathway to victory.”

Stasis accompanied by rapidly rising death, displacement, and destruction is the logical consequence of a Western approach that supplies weapons sufficient only to prevent Ukraine from being defeated but not sufficient to let it win, and imposes sanctions tight enough to damage the Russian economy but not tight enough to stanch the flow of funds to Putin’s military machine.

The case for escalating the war against Putin is not one of moral preening in the wake of recent outrages, nor of cheap militarism at the expense of difficult statesmanship. It rests on the fact that there is neither advantage nor merit in meeting this crisis with policies that prevent it from being resolved as it should and condemns innocent and peaceable millions to continuous war.

Escalation now would not commit American forces to the fight. But it would commit the US and the West to defeating a dictator and the wider movement he represents, one shared by China, that seeks to make conquest again an accepted modus operandi. Ending vacillation and coming down firmly on the side of human rights, territorial integrity, and national self-termination should be our clear short-term goal in Ukraine and our clear long-term strategy worldwide.

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