meets his counterparts in Brussels Wednesday to discuss what Ukraine needs in its war with Russia. Meanwhile, Russia’s grinding, annihilationist offensive in the Donbas is reportedly on the verge of seizing the two major cities not already under its control. The Western arms Ukraine urgently needs to counter the Russian offensive have been slow to arrive on the battlefield.
The situation suggests that the U.S. in Ukraine is falling into a persistent pattern: America gets involved in a conflict abroad, has some initial success, then falls short of achieving its objectives. Call it the Midway Measures Trap. On several occasions in the post-World War II world, the U.S. has found itself caught between two contradictory imperatives. One is to take steps, including military ones, to respond to aggression or some other threat. The other is to limit the response to contain the costs and the risks if those initial steps prove inadequate to the task—which they often do.
Afghanistan furnishes the most recent example. After 9/11, there was a clear imperative to go after the ultimate perpetrators of the attack. Al Qaeda was dislodged from its terrorist bases and the Taliban was chased from power. A new government took over. But the Taliban’s insurgency restarted, with Pakistan’s help, and eventually the endlessness of the conflict, public impatience and the impossibility of winning without a politically unacceptable permanent presence in the country led to the last year’s humiliating withdrawal and the Taliban’s return to power.
Other ill-fated U.S. interventions have fallen into the same trap, all the way back to America’s half-hearted support for the Nationalist side in China’s civil war of 1945-49, which failed to keep the government in power while antagonizing the Communists, who eventually won. Vietnam is the other dramatic example. More than 500,000 troops deployed and 60,000 deaths may not sound like a midway effort. But the continuing casualties, public disillusionment and unwillingness to take drastic steps to deter North Vietnam led to the American withdrawal. When North Vietnam invaded the South in 1975, Congress rejected the Ford administration’s pleas for aid, and Saigon soon fell.
Now Ukraine. The pressure to confront
barbaric and unprovoked invasion led to almost universal agreement, as Treasury Secretary
put it in May, that “our joint efforts are critical to help ensure Ukraine’s democracy prevails over Putin’s aggression.” The supply of lethal weaponry—Javelin antitank missiles, drones, Stinger missiles and the like—was crucial in achieving favorable initial results. Kyiv didn’t fall; Russian forces were decimated and forced to retreat.
But now, despite massive sanctions and more than $5 billion of arms deliveries, the Russians seem about to seize all of the Donbas, which would give Mr. Putin a clear if partial victory and a base for further expansion of his forces in Ukraine.
In response to this situation, are we falling into the Midway Measures Trap? Perhaps enough arms will flow fast enough for Ukraine to stall the Russian advance. But it took until late May—three months into the war and several weeks after the Russians began their offensive in the Donbas region—for the Biden administration to decide to supply Ukraine with Multiple Launch Rocket Systems. A grand total of four have been approved so far, and none yet delivered. Ukraine says it needs 300.
The immediate reason for the slowness appears to be the worry that a supply of more-lethal weapons will provoke the Russians into expanding the war, perhaps using tactical nuclear weapons. It’s the same worry that led President Biden to announce in advance that there would be no American troops on the ground, no no-fly zone, no Ukrainian use of American arms to attack Russia on its own territory.
In other words, the initial impulse to help Ukraine is running into a contrary impulse to limit the help, just as in past conflicts—Lebanon in 1983, Somalia in 1993-94 and Iraq as well as China, Afghanistan and Vietnam. If the Midway Measures Trap is being sprung again and Ukraine is ultimately defeated, the lesson for America’s adversaries, China most important, will be clear: If you stick with it over the long term, the U.S. won’t take the tough, costly measures required to win.
Mr. Bernstein, a former foreign correspondent for Time and the
is author of “China 1945: Mao’s Revolution and America’s Fateful Choice.”
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