Russian President Vladimir Putin and his military forces in Donbas and Kherson are running on empty, and the Biden administration once again has entangled itself in escalation paralysis, unwilling to seize the initiative needed to deliver a knockout blow to Russian troops in Ukraine. Seemingly fearful of forcing the Kremlin into a decisive endgame, President Biden is playing for a European football-style of a tie: win if you can, but primarily focus on not losing. That kind of “wait and see” approach can work in a soccer match given a hard time limit; however, in Ukraine where there is no clock, it could be a recipe for turning the conflict into a “forever war.”
Strategic ambiguity is effective as a pre-war deterrence strategy, but it is not a winning war strategy. Biden’s illogical default to this as a primary tool of war could needlessly prolong the war in Ukraine, severely harm the United States and the global economy, and strain the NATO alliance. This also could weaken any global response that may be needed to confront an increasingly militant Beijing. According to China’s Foreign Ministry, President Xi Jinping, angered by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) planned trip to Taiwan, warned Biden in their July 28 telephone call that “those who play with fire will perish by it.”
Biden’s unwillingness to deliver Putin a knockout blow opens him up to domestic criticism that his administration is following the maxim of Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel, a former White House chief of staff: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” Key administration figures and supporters appear to embrace this tactic, coining such phrases as “the Putin gas tax,” “Putin’s war,” and the “Putin price hike,” to try to justify and cast blame for 9.1 percent inflation and gasoline costs of around $5 a gallon, while they and others push the progressive left’s green energy policies.
We are past the 90th minute of the soccer game and in overtime, and Biden, inexplicably, is refusing to take his shot on goal to win the match. Thus far, his only clearly stated objective is to weaken Russia. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, during his trip to Kyiv with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in mid-April, told reporters that the “U.S. wants to see Russia weakened and unable to quickly recover” — and after nearly six months of combat, Blinken confirmed in late July that the Pentagon believes NATO indeed has achieved Biden’s objective. So, Washington and Brussels had their cake and got to eat some too, but now Biden seemingly is unwilling to win the remainder of the cake for Ukraine.
Nonetheless, Putin appears to be desperate, and this war may come down to a matter of his personal survival. Over half his force — upwards of 75,000 — reportedly have been killed or wounded in Ukraine. Militarily, Putin is running out of substitutions. In a power play reminiscent of Joseph Stalin forcing Mao Zedong to wait 10 days in a Moscow dacha before meeting with him, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan kept Putin comically cooling his heels and waiting for his arrival in a video clip that got more than 100,000 views. In our soccer analogy, Erdoğan’s elbow hit Putin in a tactical foul — a purposeful, illegal tackle to take down your opponent before he can score. How the once mighty Russian bear has fallen!
Putin’s economy is reeling out of control. To continue financing his “special military operation,” Russia has discounted its oil by as much as $30 a barrel, selling it to India, China and whoever else wants it. Even former Soviet bloc members, once invaded and dominated by the Kremlin, appear willing to exploit Moscow’s devolving economy, including Hungary. Putin undoubtedly views this as a means of challenging the unity of NATO and the European Union; however, in reality, Hungary probably just views Russia as a discount gas station.
Militarily, Ukraine has benefited from the U.S.-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), which has targeted and destroyed key supply depots and transport systems supporting Russia’s artillery dominance. Moreover, Ukraine recently initiated a counter-offensive in Kherson. But counter-offensives require manpower, preferably a ratio of three-to-one, and superior firepower. News that the U.S. will send four additional HIMARS and is considering the delivery of A-10 Warthogs to Ukraine is welcomed; however, continued piecemealing of weapons into Ukraine to avoid escalation in a war that Russia started defies reason. Let’s equip Ukraine with what it needs to win the war.
It’s time for Biden to start flexing U.S. muscle and stop cowering to Russian smokescreens of escalation. Instead of letting Erdoğan negotiate with Russia for the release of grain from Ukrainian storage facilities in Black Sea ports, the U.S. and NATO should be sending Navy ships into the Black Sea to escort the product out to the global market. A Russian signature on any document is worthless. The ink had not even dried on the agreement Turkey negotiated when Russian missiles began falling on Odessa. Washington should be dictating conditions from NATO’s position of strength, not acquiescing to Moscow.
There is an adage in American sports that dictates you close out your opponent when the opportunity presents itself, and not let them hang around until the second half or fourth quarter, when they can seize momentum and beat you. Great athletes such as Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Tom Brady played their best when the game was on the line — at the end of the game. The Biden administration is needlessly letting Putin hang around for a shot at the buzzer.
Biden must act immediately. He may have won the White House by playing it safe from his basement during the campaign, but wars are not won playing it safe from a bunker. They are won on the battlefield — through bold, decisive action. It’s something that Russia understands and would be forced to respect. Take the shot, Mr. President.
Jonathan Sweet, a retired Army colonel, served 30 years as a military intelligence officer. His background includes tours of duty with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) and the Intelligence and Security Command. He led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012-14, working with NATO partners in the Black Sea and Baltics. Follow him on Twitter @JESweet2022.
Mark Toth is a retired economist, historian and entrepreneur who has worked in banking, insurance, publishing and global commerce. He is a former board member of the World Trade Center, St. Louis, and has lived in U.S. diplomatic and military communities around the world, including London, Tel Aviv, Augsburg and Nagoya. Follow him on Twitter @MCTothSTL.