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How We Can Help Ukraine While Genuinely Prioritizing Asia

5 minute read
Colby is a principal at The Marathon Initiative. He is the author of The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict from Yale University Press.

It seems increasingly clear that the demands of sustaining Ukraine’s defense against Russia will be enduring. We can hope that there will soon be a just and durable end to this conflict, but predicating our strategy on such a hope would be imprudent. Rather, we must assume that Russia will remain a threat to Ukraine and NATO for the foreseeable future. This means America and Europe need to prepare for the long-haul in addressing European security, even as America must urgently shift to prioritizing readying for a conflict with China in the Western Pacific.

It is critical to think clearly and realistically through this prism about how to prevent Russia from subordinating Ukraine. Crucially, this must be done with a forthright, clear-eyed recognition that China and Asia must be the priority for our military, geopolitical, and economic efforts. A war in the Western Pacific is distinctly possible in this decade, losing it would be catastrophic, and we are not preparing for it with the urgency, scale, or focus needed.

Rectifying this must be the absolute overriding priority of U.S. efforts in every respect. Any resources that could be useful for defeating a Chinese attack along the first island chain should be reserved to that end. This includes strike weapons like HIMARS, ATACMS, GMLRS, and tactical UAVs as well as defensive systems such as Patriot, NASAMS, Harpoons, Stingers, and Javelins that Taiwanese or U.S. defenders could use to degrade an invasion force. Importantly, it also includes things other than weapons, including money, political capital, intelligence resources, and defense industrial base attention and capacity.

But that is by no means the same as saying the U.S. should stop helping Ukraine. To the contrary, the U.S. has an important interest in Ukraine’s survival. Most significantly, if Russia subsumed Ukraine or so weakened it as to be able to use it as a basis for attacks against NATO, then a Moscow that appears to be mobilizing for long-term confrontation with the West would pose a more significant and direct threat to Europe. It is in America’s interest to avoid that outcome by ensuring Ukraine can defend itself effectively, but we must pursue that interest in a manner consistent with our highest priority of restoring a formidable denial defense along Asia’s first island chain. There is a way to do that.

Read More: Why Protecting Taiwan Really Matters to the U.S.

First and foremost, the U.S. must act to incentivize European nations to take the lead in supporting Ukraine. Europe clearly has the capacity to do just that – what key states, especially but not exclusively Germany, have lacked thus far is the will to spend the money and political capital to both rearm themselves and arm Ukraine consistent with what strategic reality requires. Washington can help to alter those allies’ calculus by changing their incentives to shoulder more of the burden, both by elevating and supporting the efforts of leaders like Poland and by intensifying pressure on laggards like Germany. Making clear and credible that America will in fact focus on the Pacific could help this effort. This approach would require a sharp shift in policy from Washington, which has effectively undercut European incentives to greater self-reliance over the last year, but it is urgently necessary that Europe move toward assuming the bulk of its own defense, including in supporting Ukraine.

At the same time, the U.S. can still play an important, albeit more focused, role in directly aiding Ukraine. At root, this is because there are significant military resources in the U.S. arsenal that are ill-suited for an Asia-Pacific conflict but that would be useful for Ukraine and could thus be made available to Kyiv.

Most significantly, there are substantial quantities of capable systems that the Pentagon plans to retire but that would be useful for Ukraine. This includes aircraft such as A-10s, F-16s, and earlier variants of the F-15 and F/A-18, all of which could have a significant impact on the battlefield. Certain types of tanks and infantry fighting vehicles also fall in this category, as do some kinds of engineering equipment, especially for mobility and counter-mobility operations like breaching, mine clearance, and bridging. A variety of munitions, including short-range air-delivered munitions, cannon artillery, and small arms, can also be made available to Ukraine without compromising our ability to genuinely prioritize preparing for a fight against China. The U.S. can continue to provide “softer” but important assistance like intelligence support and training using resources not useful for strengthening deterrence in the Indo-Pacific.

More can be done in addition as Europe steps up and takes primary responsibility for its conventional defense. As this happens, the U.S. can provide to Ukraine many of the capabilities it currently keeps in or reserved for the European theater. Such systems include a variety of ground combat systems that are ideal for the European theater and neither necessary nor even useful for a China contingency, such as more advanced types of main battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, armored personnel carriers, and self-propelled cannon artillery. Furthermore, over time the U.S. can and should resuscitate its defense industrial base to rapidly produce a wide variety of weapons and platforms at a much larger scale. Restoring America’s defense industrial strength will help ameliorate many of the difficult tradeoffs we currently face, enabling us not only to ensure our own forces are better armed but also to arm allies to carry a greater share of the burden of defending themselves.

It is in America’s interest to aid Ukraine in preventing its subordination by Moscow, but we have to do that in a way that is consistent with our highest and urgent priority of preparing for a conflict in the Pacific. This approach would provide a prudent and effective way to do so.

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