Hey, remember Ukraine?

Hey, remember Ukraine? The task of reminding Americans that the largest land war in Europe since World War II is still going on has fallen to celebrities like David Letterman and Rachael Ray, who both recently traveled to Ukraine. Meanwhile, a little more than a year after the Ukrainian defense minister asked the U.S. for Patriot missile batteries, the Biden team is almost ready to approve sending some. Don’t worry about that move being perceived as an escalation in Moscow . . . worry about the proposed plan to send Ukraine equipment to turn their missiles into “smart bombs.”

Ukraine, the On-Again, Off-Again Far-Off Crisis

If I had told you at the beginning of the year that by December, the largest land war in Europe since World War II would be in its tenth month, you would probably have envisioned a world riveted by the conflict and a mood in the U.S. comparable to that of American life from September 1939 to December 1941 — when there was a growing sense that, though America hadn’t yet entered the war, we had a stake in its outcome.

Does it . . . feel like a massive ground war is being fought in Europe?

Here in the U.S., coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine waxes and wanes from week to week and month to month. Clearly, life in some parts of Ukraine, particularly in the country’s west, is not quite as dangerous as it used to be. David Letterman, who now hosts a program on Netflix, traveled to Kyiv to interview Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky in an active subway station. (You can see a clip of that interview here; an air-raid siren goes off during the interview.)

Today, in an hour-long special episode of her syndicated talk show, Food Network star Rachael Ray will air footage from her third visit to Ukraine, showing her teaching cooking classes in a kitchen she built out at a youth-education center in Lviv and interviewing the mayor, Andriy Sadovyi, about the current state of the city.

I share these celebrity visits to Ukraine not to mock the celebrities or their effort to help the beleaguered country, but just to observe that we’re now at a stage where talk-show hosts are effectively reminding Americans, who can tune out of the Russian invasion, “Hey, that war over there is still going on.”

Some days the Biden administration focuses on the war in Ukraine a lot, but then it disappears from the president’s agenda for weeks.

War is complicated and has lots of moving parts, and no president’s handling of an ongoing foreign conflict is ever going to be perfect. But from the beginning, Biden and his foreign-policy team have seemed caught between two competing priorities. The Biden administration wants Ukraine to win the war. The Biden administration also wants to avoid the United States’ getting sucked into the war as a direct combatant. Those two objectives are in friction; some people might even argue they’re almost contradictory.

One week Biden no doubt sees himself as the modern equivalent of Franklin Roosevelt, rousing Americans to support the forces of democracy and freedom against a brutal, power-hungry autocrat hell-bent on conquest.

The next week Biden, the Vietnam critic who pulled all of our troops out of Afghanistan, isn’t going to have his presidency altered by another messy foreign war, least of all against a nuclear-armed foe. After all, once Biden was in office, his campaign-trail tough talk about Putin was put aside, and he and Putin signed a joint statement aiming to “make progress on our shared goals of ensuring predictability in the strategic sphere, reducing the risk of armed conflicts and the threat of nuclear war.” (Sucker!)

And then sometimes Grandpa just starts rambling at a Democratic fundraiser that the whole thing is on a path to the use of nuclear weapons and “Armageddon.”

As our Caroline Downey reports, the Biden administration is reportedly in the final stages of preparing to ship out the Patriot missile-defense system to help Ukraine defend its cities from Russian missile attacks.

That’s a little more than a year after Ukrainian minister of defense Oleksii Reznikov visited Washington and asked for Patriot missile batteries for his country.

Back in March, the Biden administration and the Pentagon rejected the idea of sending those missile systems to Ukraine, as the Ukrainian military forces hadn’t been trained in using them, and they’re staff-intensive: “A Patriot missile battery usually has about 90 U.S. soldiers attached to it. Each system includes a phased array radar, a control station, and eight launchers, each of which can hold four missiles.” Experts said it would “take months to train the Ukrainian military how to operate the system.”

Months have passed, and Russia has launched all kinds of missile attacks against Ukrainian cities in an attempt to bludgeon and intimidate the Ukrainian people. Either the Ukrainian military has taken a crash course in operating Patriot missile systems, or the need has grown too dire for the U.S. to ignore, or both.

According to the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, the U.S. has eight battalions with 33 batteries stationed in the U.S. and seven battalions with 27 batteries stationed overseas. In addition to the U.S., the Netherlands, Germany, Japan, Israel, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Taiwan, Greece, Spain, the Republic of Korea, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar use Patriot missile batteries. In November 2017, Romania, Poland, and Sweden struck missile-defense deals with the United States to buy the Raytheon-made system.

I see some other writers characterizing the U.S. transfer of Patriot missile systems to Ukraine as a major escalation, but I’m not sure there’s evidence to support that contention. (Supplying missile-defense systems seems pretty mundane compared to, say, the U.K. Royal Marines’ having taken part in covert operations in Ukraine, as stated by Lieutenant General Robert Magowan. But it’s worth noting that the Royal Navy told the Daily Mail, “Royal Marines were deployed to Ukraine to support the UK’s diplomatic presence in the country; they served no combat function.”)

You could argue that Patriot missile batteries should have been among the first weapons we shipped to Ukraine, as they’re a defensive weapon and not particularly useful for attacking an enemy. I suppose you could try to use a Patriot missile to attack some enemy target, but there are much cheaper and easier-to-use systems that are actually designed to attack enemy troops.

A Patriot missile by itself costs $1 million to $6 million; it would be cheaper to throw Lamborghinis at the Russians.

The Patriot isn’t meant to kill enemy troops or armor; it’s designed to tackle the much more difficult task of tracking and then detonating either in close contact with an incoming enemy missile or upon collision, destroying the enemy missile or knocking it off target. The Patriot missile system with the longest operational range is the PAC-2, with a range in excess of 60 miles.

No, if you’re looking for an escalation, how about the Biden administration’s proposed plan to “send Ukraine advanced electronic equipment that converts unguided aerial munitions into ‘smart bombs’ that can target Russian military positions with a high degree of accuracy”?

Nearly half of Americans, 47 percent, say Washington should urge Kyiv to settle for peace as soon as possible. No offense to the 47 percent, but that’s a dumb way of looking at things. The Ukrainians are the invaded and wronged party in this matter; why is it incumbent on them to make concessions — and to preserve a peace that Putin could break again at any time in the future? Russia has brutally inflicted as much death, pain, and suffering on the Ukrainian population as possible, and Russian troops are still occupying Ukraine’s rightful national territory. Biden could tell Zelensky to settle for a peace deal until he’s blue in the face — and even if Zelensky did try to reach a peace deal, a lot of Ukrainians would see that as selling out and likely turn against him.

The Ukrainians are still mad as hell and are not going to give up the fight, and the Russian troops won’t stop fighting until Putin gives them the order to halt. Yelling from the sidelines that both sides should seek peace is naïve and assigns a moral equivalence to Russia that it doesn’t deserve.

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