US President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the White House in Washington, DC, Dec. 12, 2023. Photo by the Presidential Office of Ukraine

After two years of a very bloody war instigated by Russia in Ukraine, the United States as the only superpower and the main arms supplier to Ukraine needs to reassess its actions.

Ukraine has successfully stopped Russia’s invasion, but it has failed to liberate the people under Russian occupation. The West could have done so much more. It is time to ask what it did wrong, and what it should do instead. The United States needs to spell out a clear strategy on Ukraine and Russia.

The United States has been generous, but it is a fundamental US national security interest to stop Russia’s aggression because next it is all too likely to attack NATO members. Strangely, the United States has so far not formulated a clear goal, only vaguely stated that it “will support Ukraine for as long as it takes.”

Why has it held back the strategically most important arms and instead drip-fed the Ukrainian military? This has cost the lives of thousands of good men and women. Why didn’t the United States front load the US supplies of arms so that Ukraine could have won swiftly in 2023? Why allow the Russians respite to build up their defenses?

Going back to 1991, the United States has faulted Ukraine at every turn, despite its intended friendship. In August 1991, President George H.W. Bush warned against Ukrainian independence in the Ukrainian parliament.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Secretary of State James Baker instigated the policy to concentrate all nuclear arms in the region to Russia.

The Clinton administration maintained this policy, compelling Ukraine to sign the Budapest Memorandum of December 1994, in which Ukraine promised to give up all its many nuclear arms, missiles and bombers to Russia.

The United States, the United Kingdom and Russia offered “security assurances,” which none of them has honored. The current dominant Ukrainian view is that Russia would never have attacked if Ukraine had remained the third biggest nuclear power in the world.

While Clinton harbored reasonable hopes for a democratic development of Russia under President Boris Yeltsin, no serious person could believe that about Vladimir Putin, but George W. Bush praised Putin no end.

In September 2003 he said: “I respect President Putin’s vision for Russia: a country at peace within its borders, with its neighbors and with the world, a country in which democracy and freedom and rule of law thrive.”

Until 2007, Bush continued to laud Putin. In July 2007, he stated: “But one thing I’ve found about Vladimir Putin is that he is consistent, transparent, honest... I know he’s always telling me the truth.” This occurred after Putin had effectively declared war on the West in Munich in February 2007.

Bush’s Senior Director for Russia in the National Security Council was Thomas Graham, who continues to appreciate Putin.

In August 2008, Putin attacked democratic Georgia, but Bush did not even talk about imposing sanctions on Russia.

Next, President Barack Obama started his “reset” with Russia, and President Dmitri Medvedev became one of his favorite foreign leaders. Today, Medvedev agitates for the genocide of Ukrainians.

Obama failed to understand the significance of Russia’s invasion of Crimea in February 2014 and its annexation in March 2014, dismissing Russia as a regional power. He refused US participation in the ensuing Minsk negotiations, leaving that to Germany and France, which had limited standing with Russia.

At least, Obama imposed plenty of sanctions on Russia, including on Putin’s closest friends, but he refused to deliver “lethal” arms to Ukraine despite opposition from most of his administration, notably Vice President Joe Biden.

President Donald Trump was mainly concerned with personal issues in Ukraine and failed to formulate any policy. His administration delivered Javelin portable missiles, but even the Obama sanctions on Russia stagnated.

On July 12, 2021, President Vladimir Putin published his article denying the existence of the Ukrainian nation, making it obvious that he was preparing an invasion of Ukraine.

The US and UK intelligence agencies understood and said so publicly, while the German and French services lived in denial.

The Ukrainian military comprehended while the Ukrainian President and his office did not. The United States, the UK and Canada assisted Ukraine militarily, but on a limited scale.

After the Russian full-scale invasion and Ukraine’s unexpectedly effective military response, one would have expected that the West would have delivered all relevant arms as soon as possible to Ukraine, that is, long-distance missiles, fighter planes, and serious battle tanks. Strangely, this did not happen.

A major obstacle has been the US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan who has all along been afraid of “provoking” Putin to a nuclear war or World War III, not realizing that nothing provokes Putin like weakness and hesitance.

Sullivan opposed the US defense of the freedom of navigation in the Black Sea in April 2021, facilitating Putin’s blockade of Ukrainian ports from early 2022. He opposed or delayed all US deliveries of relevant arms to Ukraine, being afraid of provoking Putin. If President Biden wants to win the war in Ukraine, he needs to adopt a strategy to stand up to Putin, which seems to be his basic instinct.

First of all, the United States must declare that its goal is for Ukraine to win.

At long last, Biden has finally done so, but he must make it the main US policy.

A corollary is that Russia must be defeated.

As UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron just stated in Davos, Putin is like Hitler in the 1930s. He must be stopped. The White House must abandon its fear of the destabilization of Russia. While it might be unwise to call for regime change in Moscow, it should be recognized as welcome.

Inadmissibly, the White House has prohibited Ukraine from using US arms to attack the Russian bases in Russia, from which Ukraine is being attacked daily. Thus, the United States has forced the Ukrainians to fight with their arms tied behind their back. Fortunately, the Ukrainians have now developed many drones with which they can attack Russia.

The United Kingdom and most other donor countries do not impose such strange constraints. Ukraine should be permitted to attack any Russian military targets with any Western arms.

An important reason why the war has become very costly in lives and money is that the main Western arms suppliers, the United States and Germany, have refused to give Ukraine the arms that can lead to its victory, causing the death and maiming of far too many fine Ukrainians. The US and Germany should deliver ATACMS and Taurus long-distance cruise missiles, respectively, in the required amounts. The UK and France have delivered their cruise missiles, but not enough.

The eminent retired Generals Ben Hodges and Philip Breedlove have stated that the control of the bridges to Crimea is likely to decide the war. Therefore, the United States should allow Ukraine to destroy the Kerch bridge.

Numerous US generals have stated that we don’t fight a war without first achieving air superiority. Yet, the White House first refused and then delayed the delivery of F-16s to Ukraine, while Iraq and many other countries have received plenty of them. Such a policy is not morally defensible. It is unacceptable that Russia is bombing the whole of Ukraine daily. Give Ukraine what it needs to achieve air superiority!

Ukraine has succeeded in recovering control of Black Sea shipping. The United Kingdom and Norway have supported it in doing so, but the United States should also contribute. Black Sea shipping is crucial for the Ukrainian economy.

Putin and his kleptocratic dictatorship are down but not yet out. The United States needs to give Ukraine the tools so that it can defeat Russia. The United States can determine the outcome of the war in Ukraine through relevant arms supplies.

President Biden has fine instincts, as he showed in his speech in Warsaw in March 2022, stating about Putin: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” His staff walked back this clear insight. The President had better relieve himself of those false prophets.

NOTE: Anders Åslund is a senior fellow at the Stockholm Free World Forum and Adjunct Professor Georgetown University. A leading specialist on the East European economies, he has authored 15 books, most recently Russia’s Crony Capitalism: The Path from Market Economy to Kleptocracy. He has advised the Russian and Ukrainian governments and earned his D.Phil. from Oxford University.

Anders Åslund serves a Senior Advisor of the U.S.-Ukraine Business Council (USUBC),