To hear President Obama tell it, the West is winning in Ukraine. In his State of the Union Address last week, the President sounded downright triumphant in his description of the current situation in Eastern Europe. "We're upholding the principle that bigger nations can't bully the small—by opposing Russian aggression, supporting Ukraine's democracy, and reassuring our NATO allies," he insisted publicly.
The real state of affairs, however, is markedly different. Now some eleven months old, the crisis in Ukraine is turning from a "frozen conflict" into a hot war, as Russia increasingly pushes the pace of hostilities despite having agreed to a ceasefire with Kyiv back in September.
That it has is largely a function of American inaction. In December, Congress passed—and President Obama subsequently signed into law—the Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014. That piece of legislation authorizes, among other things, the provision of badly needed defensive weapons to Ukrainian forces.
Such a step is essential because of the qualitative imbalance between Ukraine's military capabilities and those of Russia. In recent months, the Kremlin has provided significant amounts of advanced war materiel to the pro-Russian separatists operating in Ukraine's east. According to Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, the commanding general of U.S. Army forces in Europe, Russia's support for separatists in the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk has effectively "doubled" since last Fall, with Moscow already having provided rebel forces with hundreds of Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers.
This infusion of hardware has been reinforced by a large contingent of Russian forces. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has estimated that some 9,000 Russian troops are currently in Ukraine, where they are serving as a force multiplier for separatist enclaves in the country's east in their war of attrition against the Ukrainian state.
Although motivated, Ukraine's military has found it difficult to address this threat on its own, for practical reasons. Without advanced American systems, Ukrainian forces simply cannot stand toe-to-toe with the better-armed Russian proxies. For example, while American anti-tank weapons like the Javelin missile can pierce Russian armor, Ukraine's existing weapons cannot.
But those capabilities have not been forthcoming. For all of President Obama's triumphalist rhetoric, not one American weapon has yet found its way into Ukrainian hands. America's commitment to Ukraine is, for the moment, being honored almost entirely in the breach.
Predictably, the Russian government has pressed forward. Over the past week, Russia has moved significant additional forces into the region. Experts saythat the additional deployment includes as many as 75 more battle tanks, 100 infantry vehicles, 100 armored carriers and fifty artillery units. This speaks volumes about Moscow's confidence that, for all of Washington's rhetoric, the military aid pledged by the United States to the Poroshenko government will not actually be forthcoming.
This is not to say that American policy has been totally without impact. As President Obama took pains to note in his State of the Union speech, Russia's international isolation is deepening, and its economy is on the brink of serious systemic failure. That state of affairs is indeed attributable in part to Western sanctions. But as much, if not more, of the credit is owed to the plummeting price of world oil, which has put Russia's energy-driven economy into a tailspin. Moreover, Western policy—focused as it is on diplomacy and economic pressure—has manifestly failed to deter Russian military movements on the ground.
For that to happen, Washington will need to do more than talk tough. It will need to put its money—and its assistance—where its mouth is.