When it comes to the thorny matter of providing for Ukraine’s defense against Russian aggression without provoking a Russian response against the West, Joe Biden is engaged in a furious wrestling match with himself.
“We are not going to send to Ukraine rocket systems that can strike into Russia,” Biden said with definitive clarity on Monday. Kyiv had been requesting the transfer of mobile long-range multiple rocket batteries for several weeks, and Russia’s truncated but concentrated offensive in Ukraine’s Donbas region heightened the urgency of the matter. And yet, just about 24 hours after Biden took long-range rockets off the table, he reversed himself.
The United States will “provide the Ukrainians with more advanced rocket systems and munitions that will enable them to more precisely strike key targets on the battlefield in Ukraine,” read a New York Times op-ed published Tuesday under the president’s byline. The following day, the White House confirmed that it would transfer High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems and compatible rockets capable of striking multiple targets up to 70 kilometers away. The movement of these systems to the frontline should be quick because these batteries were prepositioned in Europe with the expectation that they would be sent to Ukraine. So, something gave the president cold feet at the last minute, and something else convinced him to change his mind yet again.
The White House insists that, in the short interim between Biden’s contradictory statements, Kyiv provided what the New York Times describes as “direct assurances” that it would not use American weapons to strike targets inside Russia. Presumably, all parties involved—including Russia—will have to take Ukraine at its word. Ukrainian forces have reportedly already engaged in offensive operations across the Russian border; a tactical necessity, given that this is where the invasion force pouring across the Ukrainian border is mobilizing. If it is America’s policy that Ukraine should win this war, that will involve driving Russian forces back across the border and holding them there. Every tool in Ukraine’s arsenal will be brought to bear in that pursuit, and it is unlikely that any party to this war will be drawing fine distinctions about a particular platform’s country of origin.
This strange episode is reminiscent of another internal debate within the White House that spilled out into public view early on in this war over the controversial decision to provide Ukraine with fixed-wing aircraft.
Russia’s war of conquest in Ukraine was less than two weeks old when Biden reportedly scuttled a deal to transfer MiG fighter jets and aircraft parts to Ukraine by way of Poland. “One U.S. official said the administration has told Poland it should make Russian-made MiGs in its arsenal available because these planes would not require U.S. permission to be transferred,” CBS News reported on March 7. “No,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said flatly when asked if the transfer of jets to Ukrainian custody would escalate tensions in the region. “That gets a green light.” Then, suddenly, the deal was off.
“We do not support the transfer of the fighters to the Ukrainian air force at this time and have no desire to see them in our custody either,” Defense Sec. John Kirby told reporters on March 10. He claimed that the introduction of more warplanes to the conflict would not improve Ukraine’s chances in this fight, and the risk that Russia would respond against the West rendered the risk too great. It was, however, the president who reportedly made the final call. As Politico reported: “skeptics inside the Biden administration pushed back on the idea of green-lighting the transfer of Poland’s MiG-29 fighters to Ukraine, and President Joe Biden sided with those skeptics, three U.S. officials said.” Biden later took ownership of the decision to hold off on transferring MiG jets to Ukraine, warning that involving “American crews” in the transfer could trigger “World War III.”
And that was that. Until it wasn’t. On April 20, Kirby announced that the United States had transferred aircraft parts so that the 20-plus grounded fighter aircraft in Ukraine’s arsenal would be operational. Indeed, as we later learned, former Warsaw Pact states within the NATO alliance have been transferring whole Cold War-era fighter aircraft and helicopters to Ukraine in the form of parts ready to assemble.
What was the process that led the Western alliance to conclude that Moscow would view the ground-based transfer of assembled fighter aircraft as unacceptably escalatory but sending them disassembled would be just fine? Clearly, all involved in this conflict—directly or by proxy—are improvising their way through it. It is incumbent on the West to avoid forcing Russia into a corner from which it could lash out in unexpectedly destructive ways that necessitate a direct Western response. At the same time, however, if it is the West’s view that Ukraine must win this war, then it must be won.
A perfectly calibrated outcome in which Moscow loses just enough, Ukraine emerges debatably victorious, and the West reserves the right to plausibly deny its contributions to those outcomes is unlikely. We’ve chosen a side in this fight. It’s time to join it.