The U.S. Must Give Kyiv the Weapons It Needs Right Now: Ex-Envoy to Moscow

One year on from the start of Vladimir Putin's full-scale invasion is the perfect time for the U.S. and its NATO allies to give Kyiv all the weapons it needs, the former American ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, has told Newsweek.

Rather than a piecemeal approach, the U.S. and its allies should provide arms in one fell swoop to capitalize on the momentum of recent Ukrainian gains and international resolve for Kyiv—which may not be guaranteed in the future—according to McFaul.

Between 2012 and 2014, McFaul was Washington's envoy to Moscow during the Obama administration. In the year McFaul left his post, Putin seized Crimea, leading to a conflict in the Donbas region which was the precursor to the full-scale invasion eight years later.

Give Ukraine the Weapons It Needs Now
Stylized image of Michael McFaul with fighter jets in the background. One year on from the start of Vladimir Putin's full-scale invasion is the perfect time for the U.S. and its NATO allies to give Kyiv all the weapons it needs, the former American ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, has told Newsweek. Getty/Newsweek

Friday marked the one-year anniversary of Putin's invasion and McFaul said that the impact the U.S. had on weapons, sanctions, and economic assistance for Ukraine was "remarkable" so far. However, he said the measures "haven't achieved the goal," as analysts predict the war will head into a pivotal stage, ahead of an expected major Russian offensive.

"If the clock is ticking, and we are not going to be able to sustain support a year from now, then [it's] better to do as much as you can now while you have those resources and those budgets, and not wait till later," he said.

McFaul believes that continued American support could be partly contingent on its domestic election cycle, in which the cost of U.S. aid to Ukraine would be a talking point on the hustings for Republican Party candidates such as Donald Trump.

F-16 Fighter Jets

"Americans like winners," said McFaul, adding, "maybe everybody does." He said Ukrainian breakthroughs in Kherson and Kharkiv last year were predicates for further tranches of money approved at the end of 2022. "If you don't have momentum, if you don't have the notion that we're backing winners here, I think that'll make it harder to secure your resources."

In an article for Foreign Affairs last month, McFaul took aim at the "incrementalism" of weapons supply to Kyiv. Since the war started, an initial reticence to supply arms had slowly given way to the West giving ever more sophisticated weapons to Kyiv.

From MANPAD air defense systems to HIMARS and National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (NASAMS), Western countries are now pledging armored vehicles like Abrams, German Leopard 2, and British Challenger main battle tanks.

During the Munich Security Conference last week, F-16 fighter jets and ATACMs surface-to-surface missile systems, considered essential for Kyiv to reach deep into Crimea, were also part of the discussion.

By the time President Joe Biden paid a surprise visit to Kyiv to meet his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky, the U.S. had provided Ukraine with over $30 billion in security assistance—, including approximately $29.8 billion since the beginning of the war. In an interview with ABC News on Friday, Biden ruled out providing F-16s to Ukraine "for now."

The likelihood of Ukraine achieving the goals Zelensky has pledged—for Russians to leave all Ukrainian territory including Crimea—has been met with skepticism from the U.S. amid concerns about escalation.

McFaul said that Putin has already escalated, including through the targeting of civilians. "He's using all kinds of strategies that he wasn't in the beginning. So on the conventional side, he's doing everything he can to escalate."

On the sidelines of the conference in Munich, Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said there was "more of a consensus out there that people realize that Ukraine is not going to militarily retake Crimea," Politico reported.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul
Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul at the 2022 House Democratic Caucus Issues Conference on March 10, 2022, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He has said that the U.S. and its allies must step up their supply of weapons to Ukraine. Getty Images/Alex Wong

Last month, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, said at the Ramstein air base in Germany that "it would be very, very difficult to militarily eject" Putin's troops from "every inch of Russian-occupied Ukraine."

The specter of Russia's ambiguous nuclear doctrine in which unconventional weapons could be used if the existence of the state was at risk also hangs over what happens in Crimea, a peninsula that is considered by some as a red line for Putin.

McFaul believes Putin—somebody he has dealt with and studied for a long time—would not resort to nuclear weapons against the U.S. and NATO. He said the Russian president may be "ideological" and a "risk taker" but "that's different than being suicidal."

"I think we have a very poor understanding of elite opinion and his government," he said. "The assumption that they all support Putin and that they are going to go down in the ship using a nuclear weapon with him—I would be very nervous if I were Putin assuming that."

Opportunities Missed

McFaul said that opportunities were missed under Obama and his predecessor George W. Bush to forge closer military ties with Ukraine from 2004 after the Orange Revolution when the country showed a strong will to join the West.

Also emboldening Putin was the 2008 war with Georgia, after which Moscow-aligned Abkhazia and South Ossetia declared independence that has not been recognized internationally.

McFaul said "in retrospect, it was a mistake by the Obama administration" not to impose more sanctions on Russia and give Ukraine more military assistance after Putin annexed Crimea in 2014. "I had already left the government by then, but it was on me too."

"We failed at deterring Putin from invading Ukraine. And when I say we, I mean collectively, we—Democrats and Republicans, Europeans and Americans—no matter what you think about the response afterward."