Sun-Tzu, 500 years before Christ, wrote: “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” Arguably, NATO has rallied to Ukraine’s survival strategy, tactics aside. Now, Biden gives M1-A1 tanks, a new tactic, to Ukraine – despite obvious reasons not to. This is a fool’s errand, and may hurt America ahead.
In short, these high-tech tanks are fancy, but take a year to get trained on, are costly to procure and maintain, will operate poorly without air support, are an asset even NATO allies do not have. They are in short supply – at a time when America could face a two-front war.
This may be one reason the Pentagon opposed the idea, until suddenly reversing course. And what does a sudden reversal of course tell you? What tell Russia? Tell China? Confusion.
Given the long lead time getting these assets, limited number available, dual use as offensive, and – ironically – ability to be outflanked or destroyed from the air, what are we doing?
Enthusiasts for ramping up the war will say – these are decisive and will “show Putin” who is boss, keep NATO in the game, maybe show China the US will defend Taiwan. Maybe. Or many the truth is far from these scenarios.
Ukraine battles to hold, optimally retake, some eastern territories. Russia now replenishes their manpower, ammunition, and hardware, doubling down on a southern port, ramping up their internal propaganda – using the West as a foil for Putin’s nationalist message, a decadent West waging an ever-bigger war against traditional Russian. Modern tanks only play into his narrative.
All this is bad theater, bad politics, bad forward thinking, and bad war fighting. The needs Ukraine has are urgent but simple, survivalist, should focus on deterring Russia’s ambitions, exploiting current weaknesses, not imagining a future where Ukraine “crushes” Russia.
To look a year out, hoping for good luck as Russia rebuilds, is like planning for oxygen the day after tomorrow, with none tomorrow – unwise. The idea of 30 high-stepping, state-of-the-art American tanks in Ukraine’s quiver is bold, but impractical, ill-timed, and could backfire.
More to the point, Ukraine is losing credibility – even with Putin playing the neo-Soviet, neo-Bolshevist, neo-fascist bully. The war has cost both sides. Prolonging it is worse than a fool’s errand – extending pain for those alive.
Moreover, it is time to be honest: Ukraine – as the West should be realizing – does not have clean hands. While Putin’s war is horrific, inexcusable, and painful to watch, pre-war Ukraine was a place of endemic corruption, fraught with an edgy, discomfiting history toward Jews, non-Ukrainian religions, and other minorities.
Even now, the Ukrainian government has used the idea of Russian spies to do what they have tried for decades, confiscate invaluable and historic Russian Orthodox Church properties, calling it necessary. This is not new, but is repulsive. Western silence allows Ukraine to conduct soft ethnic cleansing, seizing invaluable treasures from the traditional Russian Orthodox Church – priceless properties, like Kiev’s Cathedral and monastery. Ukraine’s behavior should give pause.
Bottom line: US and Western support for Ukraine is not really about Ukraine, it is about stopping Putin’s messianic and expansionist ambitions before they envelope NATO countries. It is about stopping Putin.
That said, flailing about in the name of righteousness, defending whatever bears Ukraine’s name, allowing Ukraine to persecute non-Ukrainian Christians, hold and prosecute them absent Western oversight, and upend centuries’ old Christian property ownership – all with “spend, spend, spend” attitude toward Western taxpayers – plays into Putin’s hands and sullying ours.
The time has come to pull back on the reins. State-of-the-art tanks for Ukraine may sound nice, but it is the wrong asset, wrong time, wrong reasons, overlooks how long it takes to deliver and train on these tanks, how few the US have, how costly they are, how easy to misuse.
Wiser would be direct, immediate support for realistic, near-term objectives, consistent with US and NATO strategy, not another seat-of-the-pants decision, way to perpetuate war against Russia, or false belief that China sees anything in this but bad planning, and a chance to drain us.
In the end, Ukraine’s cause is just, even if their hands are not clean. That means if as we aim to deter Putin, we need to think harder about what we give and why, what we buy and for how long.
If we aim to keep Ukraine honest, we need to condition aid on accountability, human rights, religious tolerance, return of properties taken from churches, including the Russian Orthodox Church. We need to set benchmarks and block corruption. If we cannot get it, turn off the faucet.
We need to stop stumbling and think “endgame” – offer less, give tactical support that fits a defensive strategy, stop imagining a silver bullet (or phalanx of tanks) will end this, be realists.
As Sun-Tzu also wrote, understand your advantages, or “in the midst of chaos there is also opportunity.” The sudden reversal, giving fancy US tanks to Ukraine is ill-conceived, a wild tactic devoid of strategy, and you know…what Sun-Tzu said about that.
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.