GUEST COLUMN: Incrementalism will neither defeat Russia nor deter China 

Published 8:00 am Wednesday, June 7, 2023

By Dr. Matt Becker | Guest Columnist

On May 22-23, the “Russian Volunteer Corps” and the “Free Russia Legion” crossed from Ukraine into Belgorod Oblast, Russia. These two groups are allegedly comprised of Russian citizens aligned with the Armed Forces of Ukraine. These groups allegedly used American Humvees and M1224 MaxxPro MRAPs as part of their operation. This temporary incursion was embarrassing for Moscow. Upon our discovery, White House National Security Council Spokesman John Kirby stated that “we have again made it very clear to the Ukrainians what our expectations are about attacking Russia — we don’t want to encourage or enable that, we certainly don’t want any US-made equipment used to attack Russian soil.” This may be pro forma; however, I believe that the Biden Administration and Congress are continuing down the same trodden path of “red lines” and “fear of provoking Russia” that has permeated our government since the start of this war. Thus far, we have told the Ukrainians not to bring the war home to the Russians — it is high time President Biden and Congress change their tune. 

If our goal is for Ukraine to militarily defeat and expel Moscow, President Biden, Congress and the Department of State must explicitly say so — rather than the current ambiguity that pervades the majority of both political parties. It is this lack of articulation and incremental approach to hard aid that will drag on this war and potentially create another “frozen conflict” (e.g., Transnistria) in the post-Soviet space. A “freezing” of the conflict via a ceasefire would benefit Russia and China. The Chinese special representative, Li Hui, attempted to push a ceasefire “before conflict spreads beyond Ukraine” and promote European security without America — a not-so-subtle attempt to create rifts in the Alliance. Rather, we need a clear statement of purpose: the military defeat of Russia by Ukraine.  

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Last year, we said “no tanks” as it would provoke Russia; this month, we said “yes” to tanks. Up until last week, we said “no fighter jets” as it would provoke Russia; now, we have agreed to not only train Ukrainian pilots to fly American F-16s, but also allow our NATO allies to donate their F-16s to Ukraine. Let us not continue this incrementalism. The July 2023 NATO Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania will be the opportune moment to put an end to ambiguity and incrementalism; specifically, the U.S. should announce that we are providing not only F-16s, but also the long-range missiles that have thus far been denied: the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS). During the Vilnius Summit, we must also boldly proclaim with our Eastern flank allies: Ukraine’s rightful place is in NATO. From a purely geo-strategic perspective, Ukrainian membership protects NATO-member Poland – who has been arming itself to the teeth and turns the Black Sea into a virtual NATO lake, similar to the Baltic Sea with Finland’s April 2023 accession (and hopefully soon, Sweden). NATO benefits from Ukraine’s battlefield experience against Russia and Ukraine will never again go it alone with Article 5 protection — a proven deterrent (i.e., Baltic States lacking a “special military operation”).      

There can be no special formats, councils, or other security arrangements — Kyiv must be granted a Membership Action Plan that leads to full membership in the Alliance once the war ends. There will be folks who argue this will “provoke Russia” or “prevent peace.” It’s the same ole song and dance of those who have yet to learn anything from this conflict. Let’s provide the Ukrainians with the tools they need to secure their freedom and defend the democratic world — a defeated Russia would assuredly also serve as a deterrent to our other geo-political enemy: the People’s Republic of China. American security interests and liberty are served with NATO and a victorious Ukraine.        

Dr. Matthew Becker teaches on politics and security issues in Eastern Europe at the University of Mississippi. He has a doctorate in Political Science from Ole Miss and a master’s in International Affairs from Florida State University. Dr. Becker was a Boren Fellow in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the university. He may be reached at