When Russia invaded Ukraine, the idea that it might lose seemed far-fetched. Vladimir Putin appeared to have a powerful, modernized army, supported by a defense budget a dozen times larger than Ukraine’s. You didn’t have to buy into Ted Cruz-style fantasies about the prowess of a military that wasn’t “woke” and “emasculated” to expect a quick Russian battlefield victory.
And even after Ukraine’s miraculous defeat of Russia’s initial attack, one had to wonder about the longer-term prospects. Before the war, Russia’s economy was about eight times bigger than Ukraine’s; despite the toll that sanctions are taking on Russian production, the destruction in Ukraine wrought by the invasion probably means that the gap is even bigger now. So you might have expected Russia to eventually win a battle of attrition through sheer weight of resources.
But that isn’t what seems to be happening. Nobody can be sure about the extent to which Putin himself understands how the war is going; are his terrified officials willing to tell him the truth? But the way Russia is lashing out, with dire but vague threats against the West and self-destructive tantrums like Wednesday’s cutoff of natural gas flows to Poland and Bulgaria, suggests that at least somebody in Moscow is worried that time is not on Russia’s side. And U.S. officials are beginning to talk optimistically, not just about holding Russia off, but about outright Ukrainian victory.
How can this be possible? The answer is that America, while not directly engaged in combat, is once again doing what it did in the year before Pearl Harbor: We, with help from our allies, are serving as the “arsenal of democracy,” giving the defenders of freedom the material means to keep fighting.
For those who aren’t familiar with this history: Britain in 1940, like Ukraine in 2022, had unexpected success against a seemingly unstoppable enemy, as the Royal Air Force defeated the Luftwaffe’s attempt to achieve air superiority, a necessary precondition for invasion. Nonetheless, by late 1940 the British were in dire straits: Their war effort required huge imports, including both military hardware and essentials like food and oil, and they were running out of money.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt responded with the Lend-Lease Act, which made it possible to transfer large quantities of arms and food to the beleaguered British. This aid wasn’t enough to turn the tide, but it gave Winston Churchill the resources he needed to hang on, which eventually set the stage for Allied victory.
Now Lend-Lease has been revived, and large-scale military aid is flowing to Ukraine, not just from the United States but also from many of our allies.
Thanks to this aid, the arithmetic of attrition is actually working strongly against Putin. Russia’s economy may be much bigger than Ukraine’s, but it’s small compared with the American economy, let alone the combined economies of the Western allies. And with its limited economic base, Russia doesn’t appear to have the capacity to replace its battlefield losses; Western experts believe, for example, that the fighting in Ukraine so far has cost Russia two years’ worth of tank production.
Ukraine’s army, by contrast, is getting better equipped, with ever more heavy weapons, by the day. Assuming Congress agrees to President Biden’s request for an additional $33 billion in aid — a sum we can easily afford — cumulative Western support for Ukraine will soon come close to Russia’s annual military spending.
In other words, as I said, time appears to be on Ukraine’s side. Unless the Russians can pull off the kind of dramatic battlefield success that has eluded them so far — such as a blitzkrieg-style assault that encircles a large part of Ukraine’s forces — and do it very soon, the balance of power seems set to keep shifting in Ukraine’s favor.
And let’s be clear about two things.
First, if Ukraine really does win, it will be a triumph for the forces of freedom everywhere. Would-be aggressors and war criminals will be given pause. Western enemies of democracy, many of whom were huge Putin fanboys just the other day, will have been given an object lesson in the difference between macho posturing and true strength.
Second, while credit for this victory, if it materializes, will, of course, go above all to the Ukrainians themselves, this wouldn’t have been possible without brave, effective leadership in some (if, alas, not all) Western nations.
Whatever else you may say about Boris Johnson, Britain has been a rock in this crisis. Poland and other Eastern European nations have risen to the occasion, defying Russian threats. And Joe Biden has done an incredible job, holding the Western alliance together while supplying Ukraine with the weapons it needs.
Previous U.S. presidents have given stirring speeches about freedom: “Tear down this wall,” “Ich bin ein Berliner.” And it’s good that they have. But Biden has arguably done more to defend freedom, in substantive ways that go beyond mere words, than any president since Harry Truman.
I wonder whether and when he’ll get the credit he deserves.
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