As Putin’s swift plan to invade Ukraine has evolved into the invasion of the Donbas region, the United States and its allies set their sights on a long-term war goal which is to incapacitate and weaken the Russian military to a point it can no longer launch attacks like this again.

“We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine,” Department of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said last Monday. “So it has already lost a lot of military capability. And a lot of its troops, quite frankly. And we want to see them not have the capability to very quickly reproduce that capability,” he added.

The Pentagon chief was in a press conference in Poland after a quick visit to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv last Sunday with Secretary of State Antony Blinken. During the conference, Austin first mentioned that Washington wants to see “Ukraine remain a sovereign country, a democratic country, able to protect its sovereign territory.”

Austin’s message was echoed by a National Security Council spokesperson who added that the Secretary’s comments were consistent with what the White House has been aiming for since the war in Ukraine began – “to make this invasion a strategic failure for Russia.”

“We want Ukraine to win,” the spokesperson said. “One of our goals has been to limit Russia’s ability to do something like this again… That’s why we are arming the Ukrainians with weapons and equipment… and it’s why we are using sanctions and export controls that are directly targeted at Russia’s defense industry.”

The idea of a weakened Russia after the war in Ukraine is not new. In fact, some officials from the Biden administration have already referenced the outcome. However, US officials have before shown some form of restraint in explicitly saying that the US hopes Russia will fail, resulting in the latter’s military being left indisposed. So what changed?

We can only guess, but it is possible that as the war dragged on, the West was starting to lose optimism about the possibility of a peaceful settlement between Moscow and Kyiv. Combine this with recent reports of Putin’s commitment to the war at all costs, and you will understand why the West could think a successful negotiation has become unlikely.

It is also possible that the recent news regarding the atrocities the Russian army has committed in formerly held Ukrainian cities has strengthened the notion that Russia and Putin need to be penalized more to yield a favorable outcome.

“Even if they come up with some fix where (Putin) gets a bit of the Donbas and it all goes dormant, logic would dictate there’s more road to run in this. So therefore, what you can take off the battlefield in this window is not only a short-term win, it’s also a longer-term strategy as well,” a British diplomat told CNN.

A Change of Direction

The past few weeks saw a significant change in the extent the US and its allies are willing to aid Ukraine. During the start of Putin’s unprovoked invasion, the US, the European Union, and other key allies had limited support for Ukraine through sanctions and the condemnation of Russia’s aggression on the international stage.

However, as the rest of the world watched Ukrainian fighters fend off an underperforming Russian army, previous modes of support such as providing weapons have become more accepted.

Defense Secretary Austin with Secretary of State Blinken during their visit to Ukraine (Chargé d'Affaires Philip T. Reeker). Source: https://twitter.com/USAmbUK/status/1518542305573183488
Defense Secretary Austin with Secretary of State Blinken during their visit to Ukraine (Chargé d’Affaires Philip T. Reeker/Twitter)

The US, being the country most supportive of Ukraine financially and militarily, has begun sending more destructive and more sophisticated weapons to Ukraine that it was reluctant to provide in the past. This included helicopters, howitzers, tactical drones, and armored vehicles.

“The way we are looking at this is that it’s making an investment to neuter the Russian army and navy for next decade,” an inside source in the U.S. Congress said.

The US has also expressed its willingness to train the Ukrainian Armed Forces to be able to use modern westernized weapon systems. This should allow the West to provide stronger weapons to Ukraine at a faster rate, given the availability of such systems compared to the Soviet-era equipment Ukraine has been using.

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In fact, US troops have already begun training the Ukrainians on using American 155mm howitzers that were sent to them as part of the $800 million military assistance package sent along with 11 Mi-17 helicopters, 200 M113 Armored Personnel Carriers, 100 Armored High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles, 10 AN/TPQ-36 counter-artillery radars, 2 AN/MPQ-64 Sentinel air surveillance radars, 300 Switchblade drones, and 500 Javelin missiles with other anti-armor systems. Another recent $800 million military package from the US included secret Phoenix Ghost drones specially manufactured for Ukraine.

“We don’t know how the rest of this war will unfold, but we do know that a sovereign, independent Ukraine will be around a lot longer than Vladimir Putin is on the scene, and our support for Ukraine going forward will continue … until we see final success,” Blinken said.

Escalation Concerns

Expanding support for Ukraine comes with a higher risk of Putin seeing these moves as a deliberate attack on Russia. Aside from providing weapons, Western leaders, particularly President Biden, have upped their criticism of the Russian President. In previous statements, the President called Putin a “war criminal” and accused him and his troops of “genocide.”

Nonetheless, Biden has downplayed the worries of an escalation in private, according to insiders, adding that the underperformance of the Russian military has alleviated some concern.

Ambassador Nathan Sales said that the bottom line is that having a weakened Russia brings forth a much more stable world, adding that the US should have its Russia policy ready.

“As long as Putin is calling the shots, Russia is going to be a malign actor,” he said. “And so we can’t hope for Russia to be a constructive and responsible player in Europe or in the broader international system.”