Playing not to lose: the West needs a killer instinct for Ukraine

Playing any game to win and not to lose, is a mentality that is learned and rarely ever engrained at inception.

A Ukrainian soldier sits in a trench at the frontline near Bakhmut in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, on May 26, 2023. A Ukrainian soldier sits in a trench at the frontline near Bakhmut in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, on May 26, 2023. (Source: AP/Libkos)

Over 400 days into Europe’s latest continental war, a litany of statesmen remain as energetic as ever to line up for photo ops and deliver stinging declarations that Ukraine must win again Russia. The united response of the West has surprised many, allowing Ukraine to not only defend itself but de-occupy territory. As the winter thaw introduces another episode in the conflict, Ukraine’s backers rightly worry that political fatigue and a dearth of remaining material resources will inevitably lead to a plateaued response by Ukrainian fighters, forcing Kyiv to engage with Moscow to reach a political settlement - a strategy titled to benefit Vladimir Putin. Consequently, the West is playing its policy fight against Russian tyranny not in the aim of winning, but in the aim of not losing.

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Any blue-chip sports trainer will tell you playing with timidness in the closing minutes of a big game is a recipe for disaster. This hesitation gives a desperate opponent the chance to muster one last attack and change the outcome of the game. This analogy holds many overlapping similarities when it comes to the West helping Ukraine to beat Russia. With Ukraine’s impending spring offensive materializing, the leap the West needs to take isn't just in providing more advanced arms or more in-depth intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), it is in culture and bravado. To end this war, the West needs to collectively come to the conclusion that Russia must lose and lose badly.

Although this “killer” mindset has not been accepted unanimously by Ukraine’s partners, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests more capitals are getting there. While Kyiv’s fiercest backers from Central Europe and the Baltics have led by example, it has been a slower process for Western Europe. Thankfully, their appetite to deal with the threat of escalation has steadily been growing with every impotent threat declared by the Kremlin for passing its perceived red lines. Eighteen months into the conflict, a growing trajectory of sophisticated deliveries from Ukraine’s Western partners is proof of Russia’s bluster.

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The transfer of ammunition evolved to anti-tank weapons, which later turned into howitzers. Shortly thereafter, the arrival of the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) and Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS) was transformational to Ukraine’s taking back large swaths of territory. Then came, the decision to provide Kyiv’s defenders with National Advanced Surface-to-air Missile System (NASAM) and Patriot systems. The once unpopular decision not to give Ukraine Western tanks evaporated months ago, with the Leopard 2, Challenger, and Abrams tanks set to see action in the future. Even the unthinkable move to provide fighters jets to Ukraine is slowly eroding in taboo, with Poland and Slovakia donating old Migs.

Further manifestation of this killer instinct by Western policy makers is on display with the UK’s decision to deliver long range Storm Shadow cruise missiles, mirrored by the French providing SCALP-EGs, a long-standing request of Ukraine’s army to hit deep into Russia’s logistics and disrupt command and control.

While the Biden Administration has not yet moved to provide the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), their transfer of the Ground Launched Small Diameter Bomb (GLSDB) is a positive indication that the ATACMS could be on its way based on the performance of Ukraine deploying the Storm Shadow and SCALP-EGs.

If the announcement by President Macron that the French would begin training Ukrainian pilots on Mirage fighter jets wasn’t reason to believe that the West could reach the level of policy “killers”, the news that the UK and Netherlands were working to procure F-16s represents another step in rising to the occasion on the biggest stage. If defeating the Kremlin on its face value was not justification enough for the West to put Ukraine over the edge, consider the consequences of a deploying an ill-conceived policy doctrine when it comes to the prospect of future conflicts and governance culture.

Applying half measures to a full-scale problem means the West will get half the solution it wants. Consequently, there is good reason to believe that without going all in, the conflict will likely end in an armistice, and not a peace treaty. Although nothing positive has emerged from this invasion, it has at a minimum unmasked Russia’s true beliefs that states like Ukraine, and even the Baltics, have no right to independence and that it will eventually return to irredentist fantasies. As a recent episode in Asia has proven, an armistice doesn’t solve a problem but merely delays the next stage of conflict.

Although North and South Korea have technically been at war since 1953, the belligerency of the conflict is very much active and grows with every new Kim regime. Not only is the Korean issue one of geopolitics’ most frustrating and irretractable situations that ebbs and flows in escalation, it is now more than ever distracting from core Western issues related to recalibrating policies vis-à-vis China. Western policy makers should look at this situation as a preview of things to come should Russia entrenching itself in an armistice with Ukraine.

Given Russia’s obsession with setting frozen conflicts on the periphery of Europe, the Kremlin will undoubtedly look to leverage this situation and activate hybrid warfare tactics when it comes to disrupting energy and food security, as well as commerce, to complement its military options. The unpredictably of any armistice would also advance China’s international ambitions, further serving as a strategic distraction for the EU and NATO, allowing it to extract concessions in return for bringing Russia to temporarily heel.

An equally important principle to achieve in this conflict is publicly cementing the type of partner the democratic world values and is willing to support at all costs. The reasons to maintain mutually beneficially relations with Russia are rapidly deteriorating, due exclusively to their horrific actions. Within Russia, the Kremlin has reverted back to Stalin-era policies of domestic repression and detention, with Oscar nominated producers falling into their dragnet. Hostage diplomacy is back in vogue, with basketball superstar Brittany Greiner recently out and Wall Street Journalist reporter Evan Gershkovich in.

Inside Ukraine, it’s not just the Dresden-like of images of post WWII across Ukrainian cities, but the premediated conduct of its soldiers and policy makers. The intentional filtration camps of children and use of sexual violence and torture as a weapon is sub-human and belays any merit in maintaining constructive relations with Moscow. Speaking from personal experience having visited Irpin and Borodyanka in May 2021, and seeing the permeant grieving casted across those cities, the West cannot ever be tempted by a new deal with the devil unless massive ideological changes in Russia’s governing elite are undertaken. Even the one area, energy, where realists could argue the need to maintain relations, is emptying quicker than a Nord Stream 2 pipeline with Europe accelerating its green transition. Russia’s economy is reverting backwards at a staggering pace where the exodus of its intellectual titans, lack of rule of law, and antiquated industries make it supremely unattractive for foreign investors and firms.

In opposition, Ukraine’s defence both of its land and Western way of life, could not showcase a larger spectrum of cultures separating Moscow and Kyiv. Remove Ukraine’s military profile from sight, and you will find a compassionate people steeled to the concepts of tolerance and cooperation. Although much work is still needed, rapid progress in the fields of LGBT rights has advanced with Ukraine as a singular element. Indeed, acknowledging once controversial issues like gay marriage seems easy in comparison to the survival of its nation. To assuage realists, look no further than the innovative mindset of Ukrainians who have not only re-engineered Soviet-era weapons to devasting effect but have digitalized its country in short order and shown a high propensity to learn and scale up projects. When the sum of these features is taken together, permanently adding this resilience to the fabric of Western civilization is obvious, where not doing so would be criminal.

Playing any game to win and not to lose, is a mentality that is learned and rarely ever engrained at inception. With geopolitics’ biggest occasion on its front door, the makings of the West achieving a new policy progression is within reach. The impact of aiding Ukraine to finish the job against Russia would resonate beyond regional borders, establishing new deterrence currency and shaping the statecraft of future opponents. With so much on the line across the international system, the West doesn’t need to just close out the match, but win emphatically, as champions do.

Roger Hilton is Globsec's defence fellow and media presenter.

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