Ukraine is crossing Russia’s ‘red lines’ with impunity. It’s a lesson for Biden.

By Max BootColumnist|Follow

August 28, 2023 at 6:45 a.m. EDT

A woman inspects some of the damage sustained to a building of the Moscow International Business Center after a drone attack in Moscow on Aug. 23. (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images)

Ukrainian drone strikes on Moscow, once unthinkable, have now become routine. The Russian capital region was targeted for six straight days recently, and while the drones haven’t caused much damage, they disrupted flight operations at airports and have helped to bring the war home. Also this month, other suspected Ukrainian drones destroyed a Russian bomber at an air base south of St. Petersburg and struck a railway station in the Kursk region of western Russia. The Kremlin’s response appeared to be limited to expressions of outrage.

It seems hard to remember now, but at the beginning of this conflict, the West — and the White House, in particular — was desperately worried that attacks inside Russia would cross a “red line” that would lead Russian President Vladimir Putin to dramatically up the ante, perhaps even to employ nuclear weapons. More recent experience suggests that, for all his bluster, Putin is rational enough not to escalate a limited war that he is already losing into a wider war with NATO that he cannot possibly win.

Yet President Biden appears as worried as ever about provoking Putin. How else to explain the administration’s hesitation to provide F-16s to Ukraine and the failure to provide long-range ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile System) or to challenge the Russian blockade of the Black Sea? In all three instances, the Biden administration is trying to play it safe but is actually dragging the conflict out and undermining Kyiv’s chances of success — even as U.S. officials blame the Ukrainians for their lack of rapid progress on the ground.

On F-16s, the news would appear good: Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway recently pledged, with U.S. permission, to donate more than 70 of the fighter jets to Ukraine. But read the fine print: Training of Ukrainian pilots is going to take so long that the first Ukrainian F-16s will not be ready to fly until next summer at the earliest. In other words, the aircraft will not arrive until long after the current counteroffensive is over and might not be delivered in sufficient numbers even for next year’s fighting season.

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This is ridiculous, given that Ukrainian pilots could be trained on the F-16 in just four months. Training should have started last year. But even now, the Biden administration can still turbocharge the process by bringing more Ukrainian pilots to the United States, where the U.S. Air Force already trains some 400 of its own F-16 pilots every year. The Pentagon, with far greater resources than the Dutch or Danish, also could speed up the provision of the aircraft and their maintenance systems. It won’t make any difference to Putin if Ukraine’s F-16s come from Denmark or the United States.

But instead of doing everything they can to deliver the F-16s as quickly as possible, U.S. officials denigrate the aircraft’s importance, telling journalists that it won’t be a “magic weapon” because of Russia’s dense air defenses. Of course, no single weapon will win the war by itself. But retired Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove — a former commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Europe and a veteran F-16 pilot with nearly 3,000 hours flying the aircraft — told me that the F-16, which is much more advanced than Ukraine’s existing Soviet-made fighters, would greatly boost Ukraine’s capabilities.

“The F-16 doesn’t have to fly over Russian territory to shoot down Russian drones and helicopters,” he said. “You don’t have to go there to kill there. You can kill from distance.” He explained that, by employing the F-16s in conjunction with other systems (such as the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS), the Ukrainians could gradually degrade Russian air defenses to allow the F-16s greater freedom of maneuver — not only to defend Ukrainian airspace but also to support Ukrainian ground forces. (Indeed, Ukrainian military intelligence claimed last week to have destroyed a Russian S-400 air-defense system in Crimea.)

Even more urgent than the F-16s, Breedlove told me, is the provision of ATACMS. Its rockets could be fired from the same launchers as the HIMARS system that the Ukrainians already possess. “It would take less than a day to incorporate into their fighting force,” he said. “That munition provides long-range, precision strike with a heavier warhead. It would bring under fire the entire peninsula of Crimea and, if employed correctly, would make Crimea untenable for Russian military forces.”

Yet the administration still won’t provide ATACMS, citing fear of provoking Putin and claiming that there are too few in the U.S. arsenal. In fact, the U.S. Army has as many as 3,000 ATACMS; sending a few hundred to Ukraine won’t deplete U.S. defenses. “This is BS,” tweeted retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, a former commander of U.S. Army Europe. “If we don’t have enough, why haven’t we increased production? This is about a shortage of political will, not a shortage of ATACMS.”

A similar shortage of political will is evident in the administration’s unwillingness to more forcefully challenge Russia’s blockade of the Black Sea coast after the collapse of a grain export deal last month. Since then, Russia has been targeting Ukrainian grain facilities. Putin wants to bring Ukraine to its knees and doesn’t care about inflicting hunger on millions of people around the world who need Ukrainian grain to survive. Yet the Biden administration is not doing enough to contest Putin’s reprehensible power play.

Retired Adm. James Stavridis, another former commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Europe, told me last week: “We are seeing a dangerous potential precedent in not more aggressively contesting Russia’s de facto maritime control of a large swath of international waters in the Black Sea.” He argues that NATO ships should start escorting merchant vessels carrying food and fuel, keep NATO combat aircraft on constant patrol over the Black Sea, and provide anti-ship missiles and drones to Ukraine to keep the Russian fleet at bay.

There is no indication that the Biden administration is seriously pursuing any of those options. Its preferred alternative is to increase grain exports via the Danube River, even though Ukraine will be hard-put to match the volume of foodstuffs it shipped out of Black Sea ports.

The Biden administration deserves praise for committing more than $43 billion in military aid to Ukraine. Most recently, the administration agreed to send badly needed cluster munitions. But it continues to drag its feet on providing other critical assistance that Ukraine desperately needs at a time when its counteroffensive is not advancing as rapidly as hoped.

Breedlove doesn’t mince words in explaining why the administration isn’t more aggressive: “Our administration does not want to see Ukraine succeed wildly,” he says, “because we are deterred, we are intimidated, and we don’t want Mr. Putin to widen or deepen the war.”

Biden’s fears, once understandable, now seem excessive. The Ukrainian drone strikes inside Russia should relieve exaggerated fears about the consequences of crossing Putin’s supposed red lines. Providing more aid to Ukraine won’t significantly raise the risk of a wider war — but it could shorten the existing conflict.

Opinion by Max BootMax Boot is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.”


  1. “Breedlove doesn’t mince words in explaining why the administration isn’t more aggressive: “Our administration does not want to see Ukraine succeed wildly,” he says, “because we are deterred, we are intimidated, and we don’t want Mr. Putin to widen or deepen the war.”

    And there you have it.
    No more excuses: ATACMS now and the provision of training for F16’s must go into overdrive.
    Btw, Ukraine does not have enough pilots to train on F16’s.
    Ukraine is a vast country: at least 20 squadrons of these planes will be needed, along with infrastructure.
    F18’s can take off from a highway: what about those retired Aussie ones?
    But anyway, surely it’s time now for Ukraine to recruit international volunteers with F16 skills?

  2. The Biden administration is virtually paralyzed by fear. This will go down in our history as a vital lesson never to vote someone like him again (ideally). If China were ever to make a military move, all they have to do is to rattle their own nuke sabers to get their way. Or North Korea, or India, or Pakistan, or Iran, eventually. We must never have a president like Joe Biden again, who lets nuclear extortion influence our foreign policy and lets our friends be ripped up by rabid dogs. By not letting this sort of extortion stop us from doing the right thing, we break those sabers into tiny pieces. By succumbing to them, they are bright and sharp and will be more like the Sword of Damocles, constantly hovering above our heads. I don’t want to live like that.

  3. “U.S. officials denigrate the aircraft’s importance, telling journalists that it won’t be a “magic weapon””
    Oh, really? Well, then how come that the US haven’t engaged in any war without deploying modern combat planes, for more than a hundred years? There must be something “magic” about a weapon that the Pentagon insists on. If the US Air Force had still been equipped with the fighter planes of WWI in the 1960s, we can be certain that the Vietnam war wouldn’t have happened. But for Ukraine, it should be possible to win a war in the 21st century with jets from the cold war era? Those Biden officials are talking outa their asses.

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