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    Sunday, September 25, 2022

    Ukraine's battlefield wins spur hope

    This appeared in the Star Tribune

    A stunning Ukrainian counteroffensive in the northeastern region of Kharkiv will not on its own end the war instigated by Russia's invasion. But it is a "major operational defeat" for Russia, according to an analysis issued by the Institute for the Study of War, which adds that "Ukraine has turned the tide of this war in its favor."

    The courage and acumen of Ukrainian forces, who have inspired much of the world with their intrepid determination to defend their homeland, should be lauded. So too should Ukraine's Western allies, which have rallied political, economic and, most meaningfully, military support, including weapons systems that are making a demonstrable difference on the battlefield.

    And battlefield victories are essential for eventually ending the war.

    "The chance of a real, stable and just settlement is only achieved by victory on the battlefield," John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who is now senior director of the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center, told an editorial writer.

    That's because Russian President Vladimir Putin has shown no signs of looking for a diplomatic off-ramp to the war he started. Only continued battlefield losses will propel him to accept any kind of cessation of hostilities.

    Herbst, who was in Kyiv assessing the situation just days ago, said that "Although it's premature to declare victory, it's not premature to say it's another blow to Putin's military adventure."

    Delivering the knockout blow won't be easy, or immediate. And it won't be possible without further support from the West — particularly Washington. And while the Biden administration's understanding of the stakes in Ukraine and elsewhere has been correct, it should accelerate the pace and range of the armaments it has dispatched. Ukraine has repeatedly shown it knows how to use such weapons and, as importantly, how not to use them: Specifically, by not firing into Russia and in the process widening the conflict to include NATO nations. (Russia, of course, has shown no similar restraint, using its unviolated territory to wantonly kill civilians in what are surely war crimes.)

    "This war is by no means over," Seth Jones, director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told an editorial writer. "But I think that what the Ukrainians have now shown is, not only can they conduct defensive operations against attacking Russian forces … but now we see that the Ukrainians have been at least successful in the last several days of conducting effective offensive operations to retake territory." At "the strategic level, this really puts Russian forces on their heels."

    Keeping the invaders on the back foot won't be easy. Russia is still better armed and has more forces than Ukraine. And key decisions from Kyiv must be made to determine the next strategic steps to keep up the military momentum without stretching Ukrainian forces too thin or allowing Russian forces to regroup. Kremlin recalculations will be crucial now, too, including the possibility that an increasingly criticized Putin considers a national draft to boost troop levels or even contemplates the use of a tactical nuclear weapon.

    The stakes couldn't be higher — existentially for Ukraine, and maybe even for the increasingly beleaguered Putin regime as its isolated and silenced population becomes more restive. But for the world, too. Because the outcome in Ukraine will reverberate in Beijing and Taipei along with other capitals.

    "Those in Taiwan, in China, in South Korea, in Japan, in Australia, are watching this very closely in part to see how the West has responded to an invasion by Russia of a sovereign country," said Jones. "What's going on in Ukraine has much bigger significance than just in Eastern Europe."

    As the de facto Western leader, the U.S. must continue its support. So far, the Biden administration, however cautious, is dedicated to the right direction. Democrats in Congress are as well, and they've been backed by more mainline Republicans, who Jones said reflect predecessors who staunchly opposed the Soviet Union. But that doesn't include former President Donald Trump and 57 Republican representatives and 11 GOP senators who opposed the most recent bipartisan aid package for Ukraine. Ideally, the counteroffensive success will convince them to come around to the right side of the issue, and to the right side of history.

    "If they win, we win," said Herbst. A Ukrainian victory, if it happens, "would be a huge blow to the world's biggest bad guys; not just Putin, but Xi (Jinping). And so, if you want to make America great again, to use that phrase, help Ukraine beat Putin."

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