Did the West Miss Its Window?

The West seems set to flood Ukraine with heavier and more advanced weapons. And the past week, according to The New York Times, was the "pivotal week of diplomacy involving [Ukraine’s] American and European allies" that will decide it.

On January 17, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly. At the press conference that followed, Blinken spoke of the "trajectory" of more advanced weapons to Ukraine and promised that "you’ll hear more announcements in the days to come. . . . the bottom line is we are determined to make sure that Ukraine has what it needs to succeed on the battlefield." He "applauded the [British] prime minister’s commitment over the weekend to send Challenger 2 tanks and additional artillery systems to Ukraine."

On January 18-19, NATO defense ministers met. On January 20, they were joined in the Ukraine Defense Contact Group by "a broader group of nations that has coordinated aid to Ukraine" that will be chaired by US defense secretary Lloyd Austin. The Times says that the focus of those discussions is "the types and amounts of weaponry to supply, including the crucial question of whether to send Western tanks."

At the same time, US commanders will be meeting their Ukrainian counterparts to game out a Ukrainian offensive. The goal is "to align Ukraine’s battle plans with the kinds of weapons and supplies NATO allies are contributing." That goal is becoming increasingly escalatory as anonymous US officials told The New York Times on January 18 that the Biden administration is discussing with Ukraine the possibility that "the kinds of weapons" contributed could be intended to "align [with] Ukraine’s battle plans" to attack Crimea. The US has already announced that it will be sending Ukraine Bradley armored personnel carriers that are mounted with powerful guns and guided missiles and "could be the vanguard of an armored force that Ukraine could employ in a counteroffensive." The US does not believe Ukraine can take Crimea militarily, but they believe that if Russia believes Crimea is vulnerable, Ukraine’s position at the negotiating table will be strengthened.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says, “The main message" of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group is "more support, more advanced support, heavier weapons and more modern weapons,”

The goal of the deliberation on weapons, Blinken said, is to "put Ukraine in the strongest possible position when a negotiating table emerges."

But has that position passed? Did the West miss its window?

In November, when Ukraine captured Kherson, western military analysts began to speak of an "inflection point," the suggestion that Ukraine’s military gains may have reached an apex. They began to suggest that, "on the battlefield," Ukraine was "in the strongest possible position at the negotiating table," as the Biden administration had said the goal was. They began to suggest that the window for negotiating was now.

Some military analysts suggested that Kherson was likely the last Russian held ground that Ukraine will be able to retake in the foreseeable future. Some officials “wonder[ed] aloud how much more territory can be won by either side, and at what cost.”

There were reports that the “inflection point” view was shared by other NATO militaries. According to those reports, Germany and France believe that “parity will not last long and that now is the optimal time for Ukraine to start talking.”

On November 9, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said, “There has to be a mutual recognition that a military victory is probably, in the true sense of the word is maybe not achievable through military means,” he added, “and therefore you need to turn to other means.” On October 9, former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Admiral Mike Mullen said in an interview that the US needs to “do everything we possibly can to try to get to the table to resolve this thing.” Mullen then said that it “really is up to . . .Tony Blinken and other diplomats to figure out a way to get both Zelensky and Putin to the table.” He then added, “the sooner the better.”

But it’s not sooner. Months have passed, and parity may not have lasted. Ukraine has not retaken more ground. And they have suffered tragic losses of life as Russia has captured Soledar and is closing in on Bahkmut, key regions for the battle for Donbas.

“We have started to see a slowing — an ossification — of the line of contact,” Cleverly said on January 17. He then added that "we think that now is the right time to intensify our support for Ukraine.” The next day, Stoltenberg said, "This is a pivotal moment in the war and the need for a significant increase in support for Ukraine."

When Ukraine reached its apex on the battlefield in November, the West reached a fork in the road. They could exert pressure on Ukraine to negotiate and end to the war. They had attained their long stated goal of helping Ukraine on the battlefield so that it was strong at the negotiating table. And they possessed the leverage to exert that pressure: Ukraine could only go on fighting a war with Western weapons if they kept getting Western weapons. Or the West could resolve the problem of Ukraine getting as far as they could with the weapons they had by providing them more weapons, and heavier more advanced weapons, like tanks and Patriot missile batteries.

The West seems to have chosen the latter. Rather than seizing the window for "the optimal time for Ukraine to start talking" and "resolve this thing . . . the sooner the better," the West seems to be closing the window and choosing to escalate the war by providing Ukraine with more weapons in hopes that it can push Ukraine up the hill passed its apex.

The window may have been missed. And the US may now be aiming for the next optimal window.

Buried in a Washington Post article that stressed Washington’s continued support for Ukraine was a striking line. The article revealed CIA director William Burn’s secret meeting with Zelensky. It said that Burns briefed Zelensky on US expectations of Russia’s plans. A US official said that Burns "reinforced our continued support for Ukraine in its defense against Russian aggression."

But then came the striking line. People familiar with the meeting said, "Burns emphasized the urgency of the moment on the battlefield and acknowledged that at some point assistance would be harder to come by." Zelensky left the meeting confident that "the Biden administration’s support for Kyiv remains strong," that funding "would last at least through July or August," but "less certain about the prospects of Congress passing another multibillion-dollar supplemental assistance package. . . ."

With that window of support potentially closing, Blinken’s promised announcement came on January 19. The second largest weapons package for Ukraine added fifty-nine Bradleys to the fifty already announced as well as ninety Strykers that could help Ukraine in a counteroffensive aimed at severing the land bridge to Crimea, a demonstration of Russian vulnerability that would strengthen Ukraine at the negotiating table.

This new window of optimal battlefield position to begin negotiations is being considered though deputy chairman of Russia’s security council Dmitry Medvedev, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov and Russian ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov all reminded Washington that attacks on Crimea could lead to escalation and, potentially, even trigger a nuclear response, permitted by Russia’s nuclear doctrine if aggression threatens the very existence of the state, including Crimea.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.