Ukraine can win the war but victory depends on Western support that goes well beyond the current level

By Richard D. Hooker, Jr.

To assist Ukraine, NATO should consider establishing a NATO Training Mission-Ukraine (NTM-U) based in Poland and developed on a scale similar to the robust training support organizations seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. Led by a US three-star general with senior-level representation and staffing from the UK, France, Poland and Germany, NTM-U could provide the expertise, technical assistance, and “connective tissue” that is badly needed as Ukraine fights for its national existence. This organization can serve as the conduit back to the training bases and defense industries of contributing nations as well as the schoolhouse for Ukrainian commanders and staff officers.

Such full-blooded support, even without direct participation in the fighting, will undoubtedly draw Putin’s ire. Why should the US and its European partners risk a confrontation with a nuclear-armed Russia in this way? The clear answer is that a negotiated peace in Ukraine would be nothing of the sort. Any settlement that leaves Russia in control of occupied territory in exchange for a cessation of hostilities will reward Russia and encourage more aggression.

Western leaders can be sure that Russian success in Ukraine, even at high cost, will put NATO allies like the Baltic states squarely in Putin’s crosshairs. If anything, US and European reluctance to increase support for Ukraine will only reassure Putin that the West fears confrontation and will take pains to avoid it. This is not a recipe for deterring future aggression.

Nor should the West fear Russian rhetoric about the use of nuclear weapons. Distilled to its essence, this amounts to the threat of a nuclear exchange if Russia is not allowed to invade and occupy its neighbors. The nuclear deterrence regime that has been in place since the 1950s is surely strong enough to deter such wild adventurism.

Constant statements from Western leaders claiming “we cannot risk WWIII” only encourage Putin to believe that reckless threats about nuclear weapons are working. While a nuclear event cannot be ruled out entirely (Russia might stage a low-yield tactical nuclear detonation in a remote area, for example, to frighten and intimidate the West), the use of nuclear weapons in combat when the existence of the Russian state is not at risk is extremely unlikely.

The outcome of the conflict in Ukraine will have consequences far beyond Europe. China is watching carefully and will weigh the West’s commitment to its friends and partners carefully as it considers the military conquest of Taiwan, especially after the US and NATO’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. So will Iran and North Korea.

For the most part, Russian aggression in Georgia, Crimea, the Donbas, and more broadly in Ukraine has not been met with confidence and firm resolve. Instead, the Western response has consisted of sanctions, rhetoric, and a pronounced unwillingness to risk confrontation. We should not fool ourselves here. Much is at stake.

As the war grinds on, Ukraine has advantages it can leverage. These include an educated and highly motivated military and citizenry, a well-run and efficient railway system, a good understanding of modern technology, and an adaptive and innovative approach to the problems of modern, high-intensity warfare.

An intimate knowledge of the terrain and interior lines has enabled tactical success throughout the campaign. Ukrainian leadership, both civil and military, has on the whole been markedly superior to Russia’s. Above all, the Ukrainian soldier has proven to be tough, resourceful and determined, a fighter who “knows what he fights for and loves what he knows.”

Nevertheless, Ukraine is outmatched and must have stronger outside help to avoid dismemberment and continued occupation. The US and Europe do not need to introduce ground troops in order to ensure Ukraine’s success. Magnificent Ukrainian resistance has badly hurt the Russian military, which is almost totally committed in Ukraine. An opportunity now exists to end further Russian aggression in the European security space for a generation, and perhaps forever.

Ukraine can win the war but victory depends on Western support that goes well beyond the current level. We cannot ignore that Ukraine, too, has suffered painful losses in troops and materiel. Ukraine has been consistent and clear about its needs. Peace in Europe, and perhaps the world, depends on meeting them.

Richard D. Hooker Jr. is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council. He previously served as Dean of the NATO Defense College and as Special Assistant to the US President and Senior Director for Europe and Russia with the National Security Council.

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