Western Nations Reevaluate Weapons Use in Ukraine Conflict

Escalation Aversion: The Biden Doctrine and the Future of U.S. Support for Ukraine

by Faruk Imamovic
Western Nations Reevaluate Weapons Use in Ukraine Conflict
© Getty Images/Pablo Blazquez Dominguez

In the Biden administration, there appears to be a guiding principle within the National Security Council: escalation aversion. This group, often referred to as "escalationists," holds deep concerns that increasing support for Ukraine might provoke a broader conflict, potentially leading to World War III. However, history suggests that these fears might be overstated.

The Western Response to Ukraine's Requests

On Tuesday, France and Germany joined the UK and other nations in declaring that the weapons they supply to Ukraine could be used for strikes on Russian soil. Predictably, Russian President Vladimir Putin responded with warnings of "serious consequences," particularly for "small and densely populated countries." This rhetoric, often accompanied by veiled references to Russia's nuclear arsenal, has been a recurring theme as the West has escalated its support for Ukraine. Yet, the United States should reconsider taking these threats at face value.

To understand why, let’s revisit the recent history of military aid to Ukraine.

Before the full-scale invasion in February 2022, Ukraine had requested Javelin and Stinger missiles. Initially, these requests were only partially fulfilled due to fears of escalation. Eventually, as Ukraine demonstrated effective use of these weapons, they received more. Despite Russia's ominous threats, no nuclear conflict ensued.

Following Ukraine’s victory in the Battle of Kyiv, they requested MiG-29 fighter jets, which Poland was willing to provide in exchange for Western fighters. Initially blocked by the Biden administration, the decision was eventually reversed, and still, no nuclear war occurred.

This pattern repeated with various types of military aid: F-16 fighter jets, Patriot missiles, HIMARS rocket launchers, Abrams tanks, and Bradley infantry fighting vehicles. Each time, the Biden administration's initial reluctance gave way to approval, and each time, the feared nuclear escalation did not materialize.

Western Nations Reevaluate Weapons Use in Ukraine Conflict
Western Nations Reevaluate Weapons Use in Ukraine Conflict© Getty Images/Alexey Furman

The Reality of Russian Threats

In nearly every instance, Russia threatened severe consequences, including the use of nuclear weapons or attacks on NATO. However, these threats were never acted upon. The consistent outcome was that Ukraine was better able to defend its territory.

Former Congressman Adam Kinzinger and retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges have pointed out that while Russian threats should not be dismissed lightly, history shows these threats are often bluffs. During the Cold War, nuclear threats were a regular occurrence, yet they did not prevent the United States from pursuing its foreign policy objectives.

Imagine if Ukraine had received all requested military aid from the start. Following the 2022 counteroffensive, Russia was on the defensive, disorganized, and struggling to recruit more troops. Had Ukraine been fully equipped, it might have achieved a decisive victory or at least a more successful 2023 counteroffensive. The war could have ended sooner.

Some argue that the Biden administration’s careful calibration has allowed the U.S. to provide increasing firepower to Ukraine without triggering Russian escalation. However, this perspective misunderstands the nature of warfare. The notion that Russia would resort to nuclear weapons has proven to be more of a rhetorical tool than a realistic threat.

Striking Military Targets Inside Russia

This context is crucial as Ukraine continues to seek permission to strike military targets within Russia using American weapons. So far, these requests have been denied. But if history is any guide, they will eventually be granted. The question then becomes: Why wait? Delays in granting such permissions result in continued loss of Ukrainian lives.

Initially, restrictions on strikes within Russia were understandable when Ukraine was defending Kyiv. It made little sense to divert efforts to “revenge strikes” while fighting to hold territory. However, as the war transitioned into an attrition phase with intense artillery duels in eastern Ukraine, maintaining this prohibition became increasingly untenable.

Currently, Ukrainians are enduring relentless Russian air attacks, often from glide bombs. Despite knowing the launch sites, they are unable to strike these locations. This situation underscores the critical need for reassessing the rules of engagement.

The Importance of Escalation Management

While escalation management is vital, support for Ukraine—or any ally—should not come with blinders. The U.S., in providing lethal aid, deserves a voice in how that aid is utilized. However, given the existential threat Ukraine faces, considerable latitude should be afforded to them in determining the best means of defense.

Ukrainian soldiers frequently recount scenarios where Russian forces attack, are repelled, and retreat to safe zones within Russian territory to regroup and plan further assaults. In effective warfare, the moment of enemy retreat and regrouping is precisely when one would double down, creating chaos and breaking morale. Allowing Russia to attack with impunity while considering their territory a “safe haven” is counterproductive to Ukrainian victory.

Ukraine fights not only for its survival but also for the collective West and the post-World War II order. The implications of this conflict are profound, necessitating clear strategic objectives from the Biden administration. What does the U.S. aim to achieve through its support for Ukraine? A clear goal, absent in past conflicts like Vietnam and Afghanistan, can pave the way to victory. However, if the U.S. supports a Ukrainian victory, it must define what that looks like and identify the steps necessary to achieve it swiftly.

Military experts agree that the destruction of the enemy—whether in direct combat or targeting their bases—is crucial for victory. The notion that Russia can consider its territory inviolable from U.S. weaponry contradicts the aim of a Ukrainian triumph.