The folly of self-imposed red lines on US aid to Ukraine

This post was originally published in The Hill.

While flying a nighttime reconnaissance mission in Vietnam on June 27, 1969, I observed a sizable North Vietnamese Army (NVA) unit just over the Cambodian border with Tay Ninh Province, where I was stationed. As we approached the border in a single-engine “Bird Dog” spotter plane, the pilot and I saw over a dozen lights within a stone’s throw of the border. When we got about a half of a kilometer from the location, all of the lights disappeared. As we moved away, they reappeared. We turned back toward the location a couple of times with the same result. That, plus the fact that the NVA was in full control of the border areas, confirmed that it was an enemy unit. My heavy artillery battalion could have eliminated it in minutes, safeguarding the lives of U.S. troops and our South Vietnamese partners. Unfortunately, that was impossible.

The NVA unit need not have worried about disclosing its location because it was well known by all concerned that U.S. forces were strictly prohibited from firing upon Communist forces located in Cambodia. The restriction gave the NVA a valuable advantage in the war, narrowing the dangers it had to plan against. It took advantage of the policy, maintaining numerous facilities just over the border from Tay Ninh Province, knowing they would not be disturbed by American forces. The NVA could attack at will and simply return to its Cambodian sanctuary when the going got tough. Well, at least until President Nixon ordered the Cambodian Incursion in April 1970.

It made no sense to let NVA forces know of our self-imposed combat restrictions during the Vietnam War. Nor does it make sense at the present time to let the Russians know of limitations placed on U.S. aid to Ukraine. Yet, from the start of that increasingly ugly conflict, we have made known the restrictions or red lines we’ve imposed on our aid to that beleaguered country. The policy has resulted in needless loss of lives in Ukraine.

The red-line strategy has seriously hampered Ukraine’s ability to counter Russia’s increasingly barbaric conduct. Among other mistaken actions, we hesitated but then proceeded to supply javelin anti-tank missiles, then modern artillery, then limited-range HIMARS missiles, then an insufficient amount of sophisticated air defense capability and then M-1 battle tanks. We are still dithering about a variety of other essential weapons, including attack helicopters, longer-range missiles and fighter jets.

The U.S. and NATO must do a 180 degree turn and let President Putin know that we are abandoning all red lines and will henceforth provide whatever support is necessary to defend against the growing Russian threat. If it is deemed necessary to maintain certain restrictions, they should be kept secret. Let’s keep the Russians guessing. Make them plan and prepare against all eventualities. Why give them information vital to fashioning their strategy by announcing everything we won’t do or won’t supply?

If the Russians continue to launch missiles from ships in the Black Sea or from aircraft based on Russian soil, Ukraine must have longer-range missiles to defend its population. Any facility that the Russians use to support offensive action in Ukraine should be fair game. And Ukraine must have better air defense capabilities, including a replenishment of its fighter jet supply, to protect its cities and infrastructure. If President Putin knows that his aggressive acts will set the stage for the defensive equipment that the U.S. and its allies will supply, perhaps he might think twice before further expanding the hostilities. Regardless of what he does, it is essential that Ukraine be quickly supplied with the war materiel it needs to achieve success.

Although we are supplying Bradley and Stryker armored vehicles to the Ukrainians, they desperately need a significant number of main battle tanks in order to break the trench-warfare stalemate in eastern Ukraine. President Zelensky says he needs at least 300 modern tanks to make a difference on the battlefield. After hesitating for months, we finally agreed to provide 31 M-1 Abrams tanks, but they will not arrive in-country for several months. European nations have pledged to supply over 100 tanks, but they have only reached Ukraine in dribs and drabs. President Zelensky’s forces desperately need fighter jets to fend off Russian human wave attacks, but none have been made available yet. Poland has indicated an interest in sending Soviet era MiG-19s to Ukraine and the U.S. can and should supply F-16 fighters, but neither option has been pursued.

Ukraine’s very existence depends on a successful conclusion to Putin’s war. Ukrainian success is also vital to the strategic interests of the United States and its allies. We simply can’t afford to let Putin win by drawing the war out until the West is exhausted. There will not be a second chance and the window of success is narrowing. We are supporting the right side in this life-or-death struggle and must take every action necessary to achieve success. That starts with dropping all self-defeating red lines and letting Mr. Putin know that we are all in on the fight. As Robert Gates and Condoleezza Rice have recently opined “time is not on Ukraine’s side” and we must act accordingly.

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