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U.S., allies must stop playing ‘Patriot games’ with Ukraine

After I questioned Israel's endgame in Gaza in my previous column, a reader asked, "Do you know what President Joe Biden's endgame is in Ukraine?"

That is a critical question as Russia revs up a new offensive, mercilessly bombing civilian targets in Ukraine's second largest city, Kharkiv. Meantime, Washington is still withholding the Patriot air defense systems the Ukrainians have been urgently requesting for more than two years.

We know the endgame of GOP candidate Donald Trump, who has basically said he'd cut off aid to Kyiv if it didn't capitulate to Vladimir Putin. He encouraged his MAGA crowd in Congress to withhold U.S. military aid for six months, leaving Ukrainian fighters without shells to fire back at the Russians.

But what about White House plans for the end of the Ukraine war?

Congress' six-month aid delay hurt Ukraine badly and gave the Russians an opening to gear up for this offensive. Yet even as U.S. aid finally starts flowing, the administration appears unwilling to commit to Ukrainian victory.

And yes, given Ukraine's technological ingenuity and belief it is fighting an existential battle for survival, I believe a victory is still possible, if the West has the will and the strategic smarts to help Kyiv achieve that goal.

Yet the White House seems geared only to preventing a Ukrainian collapse, not putting Putin on the back foot. Joe Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, has suggested that Ukraine can "hold the line" in 2024 and start retaking territory by 2025. Yet that scenario depends on continued U.S. military aid, which in turn requires a Biden victory in November. Neither is guaranteed.

Keep in mind that negotiations with Moscow are not an option in the foreseeable future. Emboldened by his alliance with Beijing and weapons from Iran and North Korea, Putin has made clear his goal is to eliminate Ukraine's independent statehood, which he claims is illegitimate.

What's lacking in the U.S. approach to Kyiv is the sense of urgency the White House has displayed over Gaza, sending top officials to Jerusalem and Saudi Arabia over and over, even though the outcome there is likely to be dismal. That same sense of urgency could still make a critical difference in Ukraine.

Nowhere is that truth more self-evident than with what I refer to as "Patriot games."

Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been begging the West to help "close the skies" over Ukraine by sending U.S.-made Patriot systems. The country's aging Soviet air defense systems are no match for the Kremlin's arsenal of cruise and even ballistic missiles that wreak deliberate destruction on city centers and energy systems. That and the longtime U.S. reluctance to send U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets, or let European allies deliver them, has left Ukraine unable to control its skies.

With its army of techies, a limited number of aging Russian planes, and limited air defense systems from Europe, Ukraine did its best. But it was not until Kyiv finally received three Patriot systems in spring 2023 — one from the Pentagon, two from Germany — that the capital, Kyiv, finally became safe. However, beautiful historic Kharkiv, the vital port city of Odesa, and other critical cities remain open to Russian air attack.

In recent weeks, as Russia tries to crush Ukraine's civilian infrastructure, Ukraine's lack of Patriot air defense systems (and interceptor missiles to fire from them) has become a disaster.

Here is where the Patriot games begin.

According to European officials, Western allies have 100 Patriot systems, the bulk of them held by the United States at home or at overseas bases. Yet only Germany has committed sending one more system to Ukraine.

"One of the things I do every single day is talk to at least one ally, if not multiple, about getting more Patriot batteries into Ukraine," Jake Sullivan said at a May 13 news conference. Sullivan seems not to have had much success.

Six NATO allies — Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, and Spain — currently operate Patriot systems, yet all except Germany have pleaded they need their systems for their own defense.

Perhaps Sullivan would have better luck if the Pentagon would stop making the same excuses and offer up one more system of its own.

Moreover, the Israeli Air Force has announced that it is retiring its American-made Patriot systems in favor of newer air-defense systems that it used to repel Iranian missile attacks on April 13. Jerusalem has offered Kyiv no military aid for fear of offending Russia, whose tacit permission it needs to bomb Iranian operations in Syria. Given Washington's support for Israel, despite their differences over Gaza, the White House should be leaning on Israeli leaders to sell the systems back to Washington for transfer to Kyiv.

This is the kind of urgent action required to turn around the situation in Ukraine.

"We would like to close the airspace over all our regions and have 20 to 30 [Patriot systems]," Zelenskyy said in an interview with the New York Times on Monday. "Let's forget about that. Can we get seven?" (That's the minimum required to protect Ukraine's major cities, including two for Kharkiv.)

"And an American decision to give us its F-16s," the Ukrainian leader added, his frustration clear.

If the White House really wanted Ukraine to push back the Russians, it would make sending those Patriots a priority. And the F-16s.

And, as Zelenskyy has pleaded, it would stop forbidding Kyiv from using U.S.-made weapons to hit the sites just across the Russian border from which missiles are being fired at Ukrainian cities. Otherwise, Ukraine is fighting with an arm and leg tied behind its back.

Instead, the Biden team still seems to be deterred by Russia's nuclear bluster. Yet, when the White House finally, and quietly, sent ATACMS long range missiles to Ukraine last month, crossing a Putin redline, the Russian autocrat's threats of nuclear escalation proved hollow. His threats are meant mainly to deter the West from giving Kyiv what it needs to win.

"Seven systems," Zelenskyy repeated in the Times interview. "Do you think it is too much for the NATO anniversary summit in Washington? For a country that has been trying to become a NATO member since 2008? For a country that is fighting for freedom and democracy around the world today?"

As the 75th anniversary summit of NATO approaches, a clear symbol of America's commitment to supporting Ukraine until victory — and encouraging its allies to do likewise — would be to stop playing Patriot games and deliver the goods.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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